Burundian refugees arriving in Tanzania, 2015
Early in my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was approached by Joseph, a quiet priest from the African nation of Burundi. My classmate was young and towered over me in his thin, 7-foot frame.
Sheepishly, he asked if I would join him and a few other students at St. Clement’s Church for a private memorial service that Saturday. “It is the 17th anniversary of my parent’s death.” Joseph said, “I never got to bury them.”
“Of course,” I replied.
The idea of holding an actual service didn’t make much sense to me at the time. Personally, I would have thought it would have made more sense to start a memorial fund and focus on crowdfunding, but I could see in his eyes how much it meant to Joseph.
On the morning of the service, I regretted my “of course” because I was recovering from bronchitis, mid-terms were the next week, and I had paper due on Monday. I didn’t think Joseph and I were that close, I wondered if my participation really mattered. Thankfully, guilt, the wrong reason for going, prevailed.
When I entered the small, brick church, there was a tiny contingent of students-Michael from Liberia, Joel, who some of you know from Kenya, and three other American students, all sitting in the front row. I slipped in next to them.
Joseph stood up and expressed his gratitude for our being there, especially for the parish deacon, who had heard Joseph’s story, heard his lingering pain, and suggested this gathering in the service of healing.
We listened to Joseph tell his story-the most tragic first person account I have heard in my life.
When Joseph was a teenager, Burundi broke out in civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi clans. “Neighbor turned on neighbor,” Joseph recounted. On the morning of October 22nd, 1994 there were violent clashes in his village and Jospeh was told to take his younger siblings and hide in the basement.
He heard his parents being taken from their home. When the violence subsided, when the screaming was over, when they lifted the cellar door, Joseph and his siblings re-entered the world as orphans. They never saw their parents again.
“I knew when I accepted Jesus in my heart,” Joseph spoke as tears streamed down his face, “I knew I had to forgive my neighbors for killing my parents.” Miraculously, Joseph had forgiven his parents’ killers.
What now haunted him, Joseph explained, what had haunted him all these years, was the fact that he had not fulfilled his duty as an eldest son in burying his parents. That, we learned, was the purpose of our gathering that day.
After we prayed, after we celebrated the Eucharist, we followed the Deacon who carried the processional cross, out into the parish garden. We prayed prayers from the burial office, Joseph dug a hole and we planted a golden mum in memory of his mother and father.
“A weight is lifted.” Joseph smiled. “I give thanks to God.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first sermon was the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes-a bounty of blessedness which at first hearing doesn’t sound so blessed.
One aspect of the Beatitudes is their relationship to location.
Fr. Greg Boyle, in his book Tattoos on the Heart writes, “Scripture scholars contend that the original language of the Beatitudes should not be rendered ‘Blessed are the single -hearted” or “‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’
Greater precision in translation would say: ‘You are in the right place if you are single-hearted or (You are in the right place if you) work for peace…The Beatitudes are not spirituality after all.” Boyle contends, “They are geography. They tell us where to stand.” (Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart 74-75.)
Each of us is born into a particular time and a particular place into a particular family and a particular culture with a particular set of gifts and challenges. This is our time. This is our place. Where do we stand?
If you have ever read or watched Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, you know that those tales take place in troubled times. There were wars and Frodo Baggins’ journey was epic in its danger and adventure.
At one point, Frodo, feeling weary of the weight of having to play a most dangerous and important part in the restoration of peace, lamented to the wizard Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.)
The Beatitudes helps us to set our hearts, and our voices, and our feet in the right place in the time that is given us.
My classmate Joseph, chose reconciliation over retaliation.The deaconess who gathered us for that 17-year late burial service, chose compassion over complacency.
Blessings are made real by the power of God working through our particular lives.
I want to switch gears for just a moment, so we can notice the language in the beatitudes:
Blessed ARE those who mourn for they WILL be comforted.
Blessed ARE the merciful for they WILL receive mercy.
Blessed ARE the peacemakers, for they WILL be called children of God.
Do you hear that bending of time-that already, but not yet? This interplay from now to that which is to come, is the hope and fulfillment of God’s promises to us.
It is the hope of a man who has lived through the hell of civil war, who has seen men and women, at their absolute worst, and he still chooses love, he still chooses to forgive, and to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ as a priest in God’s church.
The Beatitudes harken to heaven, something we imagine as the future, yet it is touched by earth right now. “Earth hallows heaven.” Says David Bartlett. ( Dave Bartlett, “The Beatitudes,” Journal for Preachers, Vol. XL, Number 2, Lent 2017, p. 17.)
In the Beatitudes, Jesus is beckoning us toward heaven.
Perhaps that is why we read the Beatitudes on All Saints Day. We are reminded that the we are intricately linked with all of those who have gone before us-the Johns and the Judases, the Marthas and the Marys, the grandparents, and the children, and all of those who had their opportunity to be in a particular time and a particular place in which to live out their blessedness.
All Saints’ Day is a stark reminder that one day, it will be our own name that will be read in memory.
Thus the urgency for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.
What a fruitful time we live in to be the conduits for Christ’s blessedness. We are blessed to be a blessing.
Everyone of us is blessed in God’s eyes-no matter our age, or country of origin, or physical capabilities, or GPA, or salary, or affiliations.
We are blessed to be a blessing.
We live out this blessedness in community because it is impossible to do it on our own. Notice how my classmate Joseph’s healing came in community.First, when as a refugee from civil war, he was introduced to Jesus by a community of faith that loved him, cared for him, and encouraged him to forgive his parent’s killers. And then by a community gathered to bury a golden mum in memory of his parents.
We learn where to stand in community. We uphold one another when the world thinks we are so foolish to believe in the promises of Christ. Even when the world seems fractious and hateful and merciless we believe the promises of reconciliation, and wholeness, and mercy. Together we live into the already healed, but not yet visible restoration of all things in Christ.
We believe that listening to one another’s stories, and planting golden mums makes a difference-that they are ways we awaken to the kingdom of heaven right here, right now.
Jesus taught in community, healed in community, died in community, and was resurrected to a community. Christianity at its core is about relationship.
The beatitudes give us the hallmarks of what it looks like to be Christian community. They help us to see if we are standing in the right place with the shared humanity Rich referred to in his sermon last week.
The Beatitudes tell us:
You are in the right place, if like Joseph’s deacon, you listen to someone who is different than you, with a heart willing to be moved.
You are in the right place if you are Care Team members offering presence, and prayers, and food; if you are teenagers stuffing bags for Stop Hunger Now; if you bring water to a homeless person in Linn Park parched by the summer heat.
You are in the right place if you welcome the stranger into your heart and your home.
You are in the right place if you are Sunday School teachers guiding little ones with love and listening to parents worries and complaints;
You are in the right place if you are doctors giving heartbreaking news with mercy; if you are judges deliberating with justice and compassion; if you are advocates giving voice to the marginalized; if you are Kairos visitors bringing the Gospel to prisoners.
We are in the right place if we are a community choosing to be single-focused on embodying God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy;
We are in the right place if we are a community willing to foolishly believe that we can change the world one blessed heart at time.
This is our time. This is our place, it is for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.” Amen.
Audio will be available here.
Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12