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Matthew 5:1-12 and 38-48
Here is just one of the many things I have learned from almost two years of pastoring an instant-sanctuary church, some 692 days of walking with a faithful, strong, courageous, and utterly vulnerable Guatemalan man facing deportation and living in a church, apart from his wife and four children:
Powerlessness is exhausting.
It will wear you out.
It is stressful.
It defines everything.
Powerlessness will chew you up and spit you out and then, when you’re down on your knees, it will come back for what little is left of you.
Just when you think you’re making a little headway against it, it will pull you up up by the roots and toss you back and forth as if you are nothing more than a rag doll.
It will leave you gasping for breath and grasping at straws.
Some days will feel like a roller coaster ride, others like a train wreck.
Fear and desperation will never be far away; the temptation to despair will be constant; anger and bitterness will nag you to feed them.
Of course, you don’t have to be Lucio Perez or his wife or his children to know these things about powerlessness. You don’t have to be one of the other 40 or so immigrants living in sanctuary or one of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country or one of the thousands of migrant parents and children who have been separated by our government at the border or held like cattle in detention centers or one of countless millions of refugees hoping to find some place that will welcome you. You don’t even have to be black or brown or unemployed or without a job or a home. You don’t have to be a resident of the Bahamas who knows what it is to be a speck of nothing in the eye of a hurricane. You needn’t be powerless against alcohol or opioids, cigarettes or heroin.
No, powerlessness comes in all shapes and sizes to everyone who is mortal. You may feel powerless amidst the design flaws of your kitchen, powerless against the annoying habits (and heart-stealing love) of your partner, powerless against climate change, powerless in the face of the random but utterly reliable reality of gun violence, powerless to ignore the outrageous tweets from the White House, powerless against the ravages of disease and the onward march of aging. You may feel powerless in the face of the non-stop demands of your job or the constant clamoring of your kids. You may feel powerless to do anything about racism and inequality and all manner of injustice.
Even though most of us here live lives of considerable privilege, we all have experienced at least the feeling of powerlessness, and in the face of death all of us will know it.
But here’s another thing about powerlessness: According to Jesus, it can also bring happiness. According to Jesus, people without power are blessed. People who feel hopeless are happy and blessed. According to Jesus, people who rail against injustice and hunger and thirst for what is right are happy and blessed. According to Jesus, people who make peace are happy and blessed. According to Jesus, people who are made to suffer for their faith or their solidarity are happy and blessed.
We have heard these phrases so many times that we’ve lost all appreciation for their apparent absurdity, their absolute radicalness.
As Richard Rohr has said, it’s funny how the people who are forever demanding to post the Ten Commandments on government property have never sought to display the Beatitudes on courthouse lawns. Because Jesus’ “blessed (or happy) are” statements are meant to empower. They are a reflection of kin-dom values that bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. They are revolutionary—or at least they would be if we lived as if they were true.
According to Jesus and many who’ve come after him, including Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there is power even in our perceived powerlessness—the strength of community, the power of resistance, the victory of nonviolence, the peace and transformation of ourselves and the world when we choose to love our enemies.
All these things are hard to do, but we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.
I am speaking today of powerlessness and power because I experience it and feel it every. single. day. in walking with Lucio and his family through the random and convoluted layers of our immigration system and the intentional cruelty of current policies—and because Lucio’s situation has arrived at yet another critical moment. I am speaking of nonviolent resistance—turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile and loving our enemies and all that—because I had extended conversations last week with an earnest, justice-seeking young person who seemed to think that confronting so-called “straight pride” marchers in Boston with angry crowds who refused to cooperate with police should have been effective. I am speaking of enemy-love and peacemaking because sometimes it is really hard to hold immigration officials, white supremacists, NRA leaders, and our narcissistic president in the light of God’s love.
All that, and because the anniversary of 9/11 is upon us once again.
Blessed are the powerless—
because God chooses to live with them.
Blessed are the powerless—
because God chose to become just like them.
Blessed are the powerless—
because God gives them the Spirit of power.
Blessed are the perceived powerless—
because they know they need something and someone beyond themselves.
Blessed are the powerless—
because they form community: in churches and synagogues and mosques and sanghas, in unions and movements and collective action, in 12-step groups and grief-support groups and LGBTQ pride marches, in the public square and the voting booth, in families by blood and families by choice, and, yes, even online.
Blessed are those who choose enemy-
love and nonviolence— because they will experience a transformation of their own hearts, they will kindle a revolution of the spirit, and they will discover the power of choosing how to respond to all that wounds and oppresses and dehumanizes and disempowers.
What if the key to our own healing is locked in our enemy’s heart? What if the hope of justice requires working with the other side? What if the path to empowerment and change is made by recognizing our need for one another? What if we could find peace and hope and happiness even in our powerlessness by claiming the blessedness of it? By realizing that God is with us in it and wants to make a way out of it?
Blessed are the peacemakers—and those who keep trying to make peace and justice even when it feels like it will never come, even when the odds are against it, even when others call them fools.
Walter Wink said “faith requires marching into the waters before they part.”
And Jesus said the faithful will be happy and blessed even when the waters don’t part.
Six hundred ninety-two days is a very long time for someone to live in a church basement, apart from his family, never knowing how this will end, ever trusting that God is in control. It is hard in ways that those of us with citizenship who sleep in our own beds and come and go wherever we want at times of our own choosing will never fully understand. It is a powerlessness we do not share, but in offering sanctuary and working for justice and walking with Lucio and his family, we choose to surrender some of our comfort, some of our control, some of resources, and some our prior understanding of the way the world works.
And in so doing we have spawned a new community, we have discovered the dignity of the powerless, we have stretched ourselves, we have seen Christ in one another, we have tested our faith and our strength, and we are working on loving our enemies.
And sometimes—occasionally, at least—we know that we are blessed to be a part of it all. Sometimes we feel happy even amid the real possibility of loss and grief. Sometimes we discover that we have other kinds of power.
Yesterday afternoon was one of those times.
Because Tony, Lucio’s second-born and oldest U.S.-born child, was turning 17, a few sanctuary folks helped organize a party for Tony and the family. Family members came from as far away as Delaware. Friends came from Springfield. And Lucio’s mother, whom he had not seen in 22 years, was here from Guatemala. Lucio’s tiny Mamá, who gave birth to 13 children, was reunited with five of them. Lucio’s oldest child was reunited with the woman who raised him for much of his life, and his three U.S.-citizen children met their paternal grandmother for the first time.
Tears flowed. Hands reached out and held tight. Smiles radiated. Dora, Lucio’s wife, looked happier and more at ease than I’ve ever seen her. Grace filled the room. Every moment was bursting with never-before, maybe-never-again poignancy.
And every single one of us was blessed and happy. In the glory of the moment. In the bonds of family and faith. In a community of love and hope. With a peace that passed all understanding. With a power that comes from God.
We continue to work and pray that doors will open and waters will part. And some days we feel hopeless. We continue to work and pray that walls will come down and families will be reunited. And most days we feel tired, and some days we feel powerless.
But blessed are the powerless. Blessed are those who know Jesus walks with them. Blessed are those who choose nonviolence and prayer over hatred and bitterness.
Blessed are Lucio and his family, and blessed are we.