Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Edges of the Field

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 19:9-10

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Epiphany 7A – February 19, 2017

         St. Francis famously said:  “Preach the gospel always; use words if you must.” At the heart of this saying is the insight that what we do matters every bit as much as what we say, if not more so.  Long before Christianity became an institutionalized religion with creeds and confessional statements, the faith was known simply as “the Way,” and its followers were known primarily for how they lived, not just what they believed.  The early church was organized around a commitment to Jesus Christ as the divine embodiment of a new humanity and a new model for human community.
         In the early Church, what differentiated Christians from others in the Empire were primarily practices that pointed to the in-breaking of God’s reign:  early Christians cared for the sick; established communities without regard to class, social status, privilege or gender; repented of their sins with humility, and sought and extended forgiveness; exercised an unrelenting ministry of reconciliation; and they prayed for others and for the world with regularity.
         But there was another set of key practices that marked the life of the early Church too – how Christians related to property. The earliest Christians were known for sharing their resources without a sense of possessiveness, giving to the poor, and extending hospitality to strangers.  We hear this message, of course, in Jesus’ words today, in which he urges us to give to anyone who asks, to lend to those who need to borrow, and to give up not only our coats but our cloaks as well.
         This notion that our lives should be grounded in generosity, freed from undue to attachment to the things we own, has deep roots in the Bible that we can trace back to our first lesson from the Book of Leviticus. God is describing what it means for his people to be holy, and notice what the very first item on God’s list is.  God says: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:9-10)
         I used to think that this holiness commandment, like many others from Leviticus, was an antiquated, if charming, holdover from an agrarian society that has little relevance to us today.  But I was convinced otherwise – and here, you may be surprised – by a member of the faculty at the Harvard Law School, Joseph Singer.  Joe is a distinguished property law professor, the husband of Dean Martha Minow, and an observant Jew.  Joe is also the author of a gem of a book entitled, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership,[1] in which he seeks to demonstrate the enduring relevance of these two verses from Leviticus 19 to modern property law and American capitalism. And he does in a mere 136 pages in plain English that any layperson can understand.
         And like any good rabbi, Joe organizes his book around a story:
         Just before Christmas 1995, the Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, suffered a devastating fire. When the flames finally died down, three of the nine buildings were in ruins. The next day, the owner, Aaron Feuerstein, assembled the workers in the high school gymnasium. They feared the worst. Most of the textile mills in New England had long ago moved to other parts of the country, other parts of the world. Aaron was seventy years old and might be ready to call it a day. The workers wondered if he would collect the insurance money and retire. What was going to happen to them? More than three thousand people worked for Malden Mills and their prospects looked bleak.
         Then Aaron got up to speak.  To their astonishment, Aaron announced that he would rebuild the factory and that he would rehire every worker who wanted a job. He would continue to pay their wages for the next month and they would each receive their expected $275 Christmas bonus on time. Pandemonium broke out in the gymnasium.  It is reported that “grown men cried, and in the several languages of the largely immigrant workforce – Portuguese, Spanish, and others – prayers of thanksgiving were said.”
         Aaron Feuerstein made good on his promises.  Not only that:  He continued to pay his workers’ salaries for several months, until he could no longer afford to do so.  He had no legal obligation to pay these salaries or to help his employees get through the down time.  Ultimately, the factory was rebuilt.  As of 1998, almost all the workers had been rehired.
         When asked why he did it, Aaron replied simply that he had a moral obligation to do so.  “The workers are depending upon me,” he explained.  “There was no way I was going to take 3,000 workers and throw them into the street, and there was no way I was going to send the city of Lawrence into economic oblivion.”
         In his book, Joe Singer explains that, as an orthodox Jew, Aaron relied upon traditional Jewish teachings about the moral obligations of property owners, whether they be farmers (as in the days of Leviticus) or factory owners (as in Aaron’s time). At the foundation of such teaching is the conviction that human beings are not the ultimate owners of their property and labors, but that God is.  In the words of the Psalmist:  “‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’ Ps 24:1.  Stated differently, because the land and its fruits and our labors are all divine gifts, human beings are merely stewards of these gifts.  Through our time, talent, and effort we may well earn the right to exercise responsibility over property and labor, but within the Torah these property rights are only qualified rights.  And because God intends for the fruits of the land and our labors to be enjoyed by all God’s people, such fruits cannot be withheld from those who need them.
         And so, as we see in our lesson from Leviticus, God commands individual owners of property to set aside a portion of what they own for the poor. Property holders are commanded not to reap to the edges of the field, not to pick up grain or grapes that have been dropped in the course of harvesting, and not to return to the field to retrieve ‘forgotten sheaves.’ This portion of the fruits of the land is in fact owned by the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor – those who have no access to land of their own or whose family ties have been shattered. To preserve such fruits is, on this view, not a matter of charity and does not constitute a transfer from the landowner to the dispossessed. Rather, the fruits at edges of the field are the share of God’s bounty belonging to the landless.” (Singer, 49)
         Aaron Feuerstein recognized that his family’s success in the textile business was made possible only by God’s grace and with the support of the community.  And so, in a time of crisis, Aaron recognized his own responsibility to care for those who made his business the success that it was.  
         The biblical notion of titheing – of giving away ten percent of one’s income – likewise has its roots in this biblical concept of stewardship.  The admonition to tithe is not fundamentally an exercise in charity so much as it is an exercise in humility and gratitude, acknowledging that what we have was made possible only through God’s grace.  We give away ten percent not because we’re altruistic but because we are acknowledging that at least ten percent of what we have properly belongs to God in the first place and should be used for the benefit of others.  St. Augustine had a beautiful way of expressing this:  “Find out how much God has given you,” Augustine writes, “and from it take what you need; always remembering that the remainder is needed by others.”
         These biblical practices of good stewardship, responsible ownership, and generous giving are, I am sad to say, increasingly at odds with the American spirit of private enterprise, self-reliance, and maximizing shareholder value.  But it needn’t be so.  I don’t have time here to summarize all of Joe Singer’s argument as to how America property law might be transformed to more humanely reflect the compassionate spirit of Leviticus 19.  But I will leave you with this observation of his: “Contrary to what some believe and others fear, the protection of property rights does not commit us to the view that gross inequality is a necessary fact of life or that individuals have no legitimate claim to lean on other people. Property is not merely an individual right, and it is not based solely on the notion of self-interest or self-reliance.  It is, in fact, an intensely social institution. And ownership, far from being an absolute right, is a curious blend of security and vulnerability between owner and non-owner.  The manner in which property shapes social relations of power is as important as ownership rights.”
         We Christians have a lot to learn from the Aaron Feuersteins of the world about what responsible and generous ownership looks like.  Faithful Christians and Jews, it seems to me, can work together to re-orient our perspectives on property and how we relate to it based on a prayerful appreciation for our shared sacred texts. 
         As you think about what you have, and what you may do with your talents and treasure in the future, I’d invite you to remember that all of these things are gifts that ultimately belong to God.  God is counting on you to use these gifts wisely and generously to care not just for yourself, but for all of God’s creatures and all of His wonderful creation.  Listen again to the words of St. Augustine:  “Find out how much God has given you, and from it take what you need; yet always remember that the remainder is needed by others.”

            [1] Joseph William Singer, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership, Boston:  Beacon Press, 2000.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Law of Life, the Law of Love

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
6A Epiphany – February 12, 2017

         An engineer, a physicist, and a lawyer all die on the same day, and find themselves in line outside the Pearly Gates.  As they approach the entrance to heaven, they are greeted by St. Peter.  Peter says to them, “We just have one very simple question for you to gain entrance to heaven.”  The question is this: “How much is two plus two?”
         The engineer is first in line.  She leans over to St. Peter and whispers confidently in his ear, “four.”  And, as she does, St. Peter waves her in to Paradise.  The physicist then approaches, and gives the same answer.  “Please, come on in,” replies St. Peter.  The lawyer is last in line, and is asked the same question by Peter.  “How much is two plus two?” The lawyer looks over one shoulder, and then the other, and leans forward to whisper into St. Peter’s ear:  “How much do you want it to be?”
         As a recovering lawyer myself, I feel I have permission to share this laugh at the expense of my former profession.  I do so today because our lessons are very much about the “law” and our relationship to it, and this joke, while corny to be sure, has a kernel of truth to it:  human beings have a deep-rooted tendency to try to work around the requirements of the law and to take matters into our own hands.  We see the law as something that is imposed upon us from the outside that prevents us from doing what we’d like to do, or want to do, or think we need to do. 
         Moses’ prophetic career, which is the subject of our first lesson from Deuteronomy, is a classic illustration.  Having received the Torah from God’s hands, and being commissioned to lead God’s people through the wilderness and toward the Promised Land, Moses spends most of his time and energy watching the people rebel against God’s law.  Every time, it seems, that the people get hungry, or thirsty, or weary, they set aside what God has told them, believing they know better.  All of this comes to a climax in our first reading, which comes near the end of Moses’ life. Knowing that his time is almost up, in this farewell discourse Moses gives an impassioned plea on behalf of Torah.    
         Living in accordance with God’s law, Moses says, is a matter of life and death. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live . . . but if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish . . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
         At the core of Moses’ message are three deep theological convictions:
         First is the insistence that human flourishing requires turning toward God alone, depending upon His loving care, and trusting in nothing else.  Time and again, human beings are tempted to rely on their own counsel, their own desires, their own sense of what is right, but that way lies folly.  God is our only guide.  As the Psalmist says, “Happy are they who walk in the law of the Lord . . . who seek him with all their heart.”
         Second is the conviction that Torah, far from being a set of restrictions on our freedom, is in fact a life-giving framework that allows our freedom to find its healthiest expression.  Law is blessing, not curse.  By loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength; by loving our neighbors as ourselves; and by otherwise aligning our lives with God’s law; we find our truest identities as God’s children.
         Third is the conviction that the law is not primarily a rulebook for individuals, but rather a constitution for a people.  Ever since the Enlightenment in the West – ever since Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am” – there has been a shift towards individualism as a basic philosophical orientation.  Yet the biblical perspective is very different:  it is a people with whom God covenants; a people to whom God gives the Law; a people whom God saves.  Our salvation lies in community, not in self-reliance or individual accomplishment.
         In short, says Moses, to “choose life” means:  to love and depend upon God alone; to view Torah as a life-giving blessing that allows human freedom to flourish; and to know that we are intended to live in community and not in isolation.
         As Christians, of course, Moses’ view of the law, as rich and right as it is, is not the last word.  And so we turn to our gospel, and another section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  That Jesus gives his sermon on a “mount,” reminiscent of the giving of the Law to Moses on another mount, is of course no accident.  Jesus is the new Moses, the new Law-giver.  Jesus comes, as he told us last week, not to “abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill [them].”
         And so, Jesus does not set aside what Moses has done and said, but instead Jesus takes us deeper:  into the very heart of the Law.  The specific examples Jesus takes up in our text were undoubtedly problems that confronted Matthew’s church:  problems of anger, adultery, divorce, breaking promises made under oath.  These challenges, of course, persist today.  Underlying Jesus’ treatment of each of these issues is the basic insight that what ultimately matters to God is right relationship to others, not merely complying with behavioral norms or legal externalities.  It’s not just that we should keep from murdering our neighbor when we disagree; we should learn affirmatively to love and be reconciled with her.  It’s not just that we should avoid adulterous behavior; we should learn to cherish all covenanted relationships and honor one another as God’s children.  It’s not just that we should avoid using God’s name in vain; we should treat all of our promises as if they are sacred commitments.
         In short, Jesus is inviting us to view God’s law not as an external code of conduct, but as something written on our hearts, something that is integral to our very being.
         Well, if you’re like me, your reaction to all this is fear and trembling.  On the surface, it seems like Jesus is asking the impossible of us.  It sounds like he wants us to be perfect.  And the truth is:  He does.
         But here is the saving grace:  We are not called to be perfect as individuals; for as individuals we will certainly miss the mark time and again.  Rather, we are called to be perfect within the Body of Christ, and it is through, and only through, our participation as a community in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, made possible in our baptisms, that we are able to become citizens of this heavenly realm where right relationship with God and neighbor is perfectly possible.  Whereas under the Mosaic law, God’s people endeavored to live out God’s law by adherence to the 613 commandments of Torah, for Christians, that very same Torah has been embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, and he has taken upon himself, for our benefit, the perfect fulfillment of holy living as God’s Chosen One.
         So, don’t be disheartened if in your individual lives you fall short of the holy life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount – because we all fall short on our own.  The good news to keep near your heart is this:  by prayerfully organizing our communal lives around Christ’s teaching, by encouraging and supporting one another in our common life, and by participating in Christ’s life through the sacrament of bread and wine we are about to share, we are able, through grace, to become the redeemed people and beloved community God desires us to be. 
         Many people are asking me in these troubled times, what can we do as Christians?  What ought we to do?  Our lessons today suggest one answer:  first, anytime we are confronted with human laws, policies, or practices that are inimical to the law of Christ, we are called peacefully yet boldly to resist such human distortions of God’s will for us.  And second, and perhaps even more importantly, as Jesus’ beloved community, we are called to model for the wider world as best we are able the alternative vision for humanity described by the Sermon on the Mount as it is perfectly embodied in Christ’s life.  This is our primary vocation:  to lift up the person of Jesus Christ himself — not Christianity; not the Episcopal Church; not a social agenda; not a political philosophy – but the person of Jesus Christ himself.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Duty to Shine

Olivia Hamilton
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Year A

One of the things I find difficult about campus ministry is the disconnect between the academic calendar and our liturgical calendar. For example, with a six week long break that splits up Advent and Epiphany, it’s hard to trace the narrative arc that moves us as a community of believers through the darkness of waiting in Advent and into the light of Christ’s arrival in Epiphany. There is a certain continuity and buildup that seems to be interrupted during those weeks when we are away in January. But for me, this year, these seasons have been especially profound, and I wanted to take a minute to slow down, to back up, and to think about the implications of Advent and Epiphany, and the place where they touch. And as I do this, I also want to hold in mind that in just a few weeks, our Lenten journey toward the Cross will begin.

Back in Advent, I was having tea with one of our community members, Andrew, whom some of you may know. Andrew and I were reflecting on current events, thinking and talking about how the symbols and signs of Advent and how they seemed to be speaking so clearly to the moment we found ourselves in: the waiting, the uncertainty of the political climate, and the hope that emerges, slowly, slowly, in the midst of the darkest season of the year. He shared with me a quote by a man named Alfred Delp that had been passed on from a friend. I did not know who Alfred Delp was at the time, but later learned that he was a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned in Berlin and hanged by the Nazis on Candlemas, February 2nd of 1945. The quote struck a deep chord with me, and I went home and immediately purchased the book where the quote appears. The book is called Advent of the Heart, and is a collection of Delp’s Advent meditations, written in Tegel Prison in the weeks leading up to his execution, and smuggled out of the prison by being tucked inside the hems of his dirty laundry. Miraculously when you stop to consider what sorts of threats were being imposed at this time, these little scraps and sermons not only survived the journey out of the prison, but were copied, distributed and later published, to our great benefit.

Here is the quote that Andrew read to me that left such an impression, and it comes from Delp’s sermon, Figures of Advent, written in Tegel Prison in 1944. He writes:

“The sounds of devastation and destruction, the cries of self-importance and arrogance, and weeping of despair and powerlessness still fill the world. Yet, standing silently, all along the horizon, are the eternal realities with their age-old longing. The first gentle light of the glorious abundance to come is already shining above them. From out there the first songs are ringing out…They do not yet form a song or a melody…it is all still too far off.” Delp continues, “Still, it is happening. This is today. And tomorrow the angels will relate loudly and jubilantly what has happened, and we will know it and be blessed if we have believed in Advent.”

You’re probably wondering, why on this fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, I am beginning my sermon with this Advent imagery, and if you are, it’s a fair question. One reason is that Alfred Delp’s writings, which I have really only plunged into in the last few weeks, have given me a deeper appreciation for the ways in which our liturgical seasons reveal “eternal realities,” or things which are always true, no matter the month. Delp’s book is called Advent of the Heart, because he firmly believes that all of life is Advent, and that the symbols and themes of the Advent season speak to us in December, but also in March, in October, in June. All of life is Advent, he says, and I would add, that all of life is Epiphany, all of life is Easter, if we cultivate an awareness and an appreciation of the eternal realities, as Delp calls them, of light and dark, of death and renewal, of promise and fulfillment, that each liturgical season points toward. In the same way, while it helps us to mark time and to make meaning by traveling through these seasons with predictability each year, I think single hours and moments of our lives can bespeak these age-old truths and the tensions they represent.

I find that each season, however I experience it, challenges me to discern where God is showing up in my life.  And Alfred Delp’s writings, penned at such a perilous political time, connect me to the eternal realities of Advent. They point to the ways that God is showing up to me and to us, as God did to Alfred Delp,  even and especially during this season of political turmoil, amid the erasure of the values of humility, kindness and justice that we heard Micah champion so compellingly in our lesson last week.

God is showing up in the ways that Christians all over the country and the world are standing with our Muslim neighbors and saying “not in our name” to the implicit and explicit violence being carried out against them. God is showing up as God always does, in the words of our scriptures week after week, and especially this evening as we are reminded in the words of the prophet Isaiah that our God loosens the bond of injustice, lets the oppressed go free, and desires that we do the same.

Even in the midst of what feels like an Advent time in our country, a time of darkness and waiting, I can see the in-breaking of the light of Christ all around us, in what I would call Epiphany moments, declaring that we are blessed if we can hold fast to the promise of liberation, of abundance, and of fulfillment even in the midst of bleak times.

The texts that we hear tonight all take up this theme of illumination, and especially about what it means to be light-bearers, or disciples of Christ, in a dark world. The texts especially seem to hone in on the difference between knowledge and action when it comes to following Christ. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that he “does not proclaim the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom,” but instead seeks to follow the wisdom of God, which is totally unlike the wisdom of the rulers of the world.

I think there is an unsettling trend in our current culture, and one that I find myself participating in, at times. Maybe it is what Paul was noting back when he addressed the people of Corinth. It seems that we mistake knowledge for action. As an example from my own life, but one I imagine some of you can relate to, there are days when I find myself practically glued to my smartphone, refreshing the news feed over and over, while also listening with one ear to the radio and texting with friends about the day’s unfolding events. This often contributes to a sense of overwhelm and hopelessness.

Yes, it is good to know what’s happening in the world, and especially not to turn one’s attention away from our neighbor’s suffering. And yet, simply absorbing information about the news of the day, in its increasing complexity and distortion, does not a good disciple make. As we were reminded last week, God desires us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. These are verbs of action, and gestures that require us to put something of ourselves on the line and to risk getting it wrong, over and over again, knowing that the stakes are too high to hide out.

Our Gospel tonight is a familiar one to most of us, and it also seems to me to be about this relationship between discipleship and action. As Paul reiterates when he says that God has bestowed gifts of the Spirit on each of us, Jesus tells us as his disciples that we are each the salt of the earth and the light of the world, which ought not to be hidden. Illumining that which is obscured and shining a light on suffering, being salt and refusing to let our flavor be lost for the sake of blending in.

I think about how Alfred Delp made of his life, and yes, even his death, a window that the light of Christ could shine through. He stressed that his friends and neighbors must stay alert and ready to act, reminding them through his words and actions that following Christ is not always smooth sailing, but often requires us to navigate choppy, brackish waters. It sometimes requires us to command attention with our zeal and our zest for justice, and mercy.

Father Delp was executed on February 2, 1945. But four years earlier, on that very day, he wrote a sermon for Candlemas in which he wrote extensively about light, and about candles. Candles, he wrote, “give a peaceful, reticent, but constant shining. [They give] light at the cost of [their] own substance, so that they are consumed in the process. Anyone who wants to comprehend Christ’s message of light,” he continues, “must comprehend this one thing: the mission, the duty to shine, to draw others, to seek, to heal, to do good at the cost of one’s own substance.”

The amount of information we take in on any given day, through various channels, is astounding. Delp wrote in prison, cut off from the news of the day, but able to convey these truths, able to be true salt and light. His discipleship both responded to the political climate he was embedded in, but it also rooted itself in the age-old reality of light emerging from the darkness.

Our discipleship may not look extreme or heroic, but we are all, no doubt, called to act, through the means we have available to us. We are not all activists, but each of us have gifts that can be deployed to do good. After all, Jesus doesn’t seem to be looking for disciples with the most sophisticated political analysis, Jesus is looking for those who can carry out his mission of reconciliation.

Like Alfred Delp, many of us probably feel as though we are living in an Advent season. However, the task before us seems to be to participate in, and call attention to, Epiphany moments. These moments prompt us to realize that God is with us, here and now, and that even if we can’t quite make out that light in the distance, we can ourselves be light to others, helping to illumine pathways forward.


Monday, January 30, 2017

The Grace in Weakness

“For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”  1 Cor. 1:25

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
4A Epiphany – January 29, 2017
         Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong, save us from the vanities of this world and the conceits of our own minds, so that we might find grace in weakness and become fools for your love’s sake. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
         That prayer, of course, is based upon today’s epistle lesson, in which St. Paul reminds us that what the world perceives to be weakness and foolishness is often a sign of God’s grace.  I will always associate St. Paul’s words with a story from my days as a middle school chaplain.  There was a young boy – I’ll call him Jimmy – who was then in seventh grade and one of my few students who seemed genuinely interested in chapel.  Jimmy often helped me with worship in quiet ways – as an acolyte, or usher, or crucifer – but his real dream was to stand up in front of everyone and proudly and articulately read one of the lessons.  The trouble was that Jimmy had a bit of a stutter; and for that reason, he was mortified about speaking in public, and always declined to serve as a reader, much as he wanted to.
         I felt torn about the issue, because on the one hand, I certainly never wanted to put Jimmy in a position of embarrassment; yet, on the other, I desperately wanted to help him overcome his fear so that he could fulfill his deep desire to read the Scriptures aloud with clarity and confidence. Uncertain how to proceed, one day over lunch in the faculty room, I sought the advice of a friend and colleague, Sarah, who also happened to be Jimmy’s history teacher. I have a thought, Sarah said:  I’m currently doing a unit on World War II and my intention next week is to show the class the (then-recently released) movie, The King’s Speech, which, Sarah said, may make enough of an impression on Jimmy to inspire him to confront his fears about his speaking challenges and to take a risk.
         The King’s Speech, as you may remember, is the story of King George VI, known to his family as “Bertie,” who had imperial leadership thrust upon him quite unexpectedly.  The second son of George V, Bertie was a shy and awkward boy, in contrast to his older brother, Edward, who was debonair, confident, and handsome.  Everyone always assumed Edward would become the future king, not only because he was older and therefore next in line to the throne, but also because he simply seemed more fit to be king.
         Moreover, little Bertie suffered from one other difficulty that posed an obstacle to becoming king:  like Jimmy, he stammered badly.  In public settings, Bertie would become so utterly afraid to speak that he could not put two words together without stumbling.  Bertie had all the wealth in the world, all the power of nobility, all the privileges that come with royalty, and yet none of this did him any good because he could not do the one thing people expect of a future king:  to speak with eloquence and authority. 
         And then Bertie’s greatest fear comes to pass:  upon the death of his father, George V, Bertie’s older brother, Edward, infamously abdicates the throne, and Bertie is forced to become king against his wishes. And not only that, but Bertie takes the throne near the outbreak of WWII, at a time when the British people desperately need confident and sure and articulate leadership, which only adds to Bertie’s overwhelming sense of panic.
         The heart of the movie is about how Bertie faces the demon of his stuttering through an unlikely relationship with an eccentric, failed actor, who has made a modest reputation working as a speech therapist.  For the rest of the movie, we watch these two men, from dramatically different backgrounds, come to know, and trust, and help one another, so that they might together overcome the fear that underlies the King’s stuttering.  It is a touching story about human vulnerability, and about the grace that is present when people put aside their differences to face and share in the weaknesses that make us human.
         So, to return to my story, Sarah showed the movie to her eighth grade history class, and it did indeed make the expected impression. Seeing how Jimmy was affected by the film, Sarah, to her great credit, gently took him aside after class and offered to coach Jimmy so that he might be able to fulfill his dream. 
         And so, a few weeks later, Jimmy stepped up to the lectern in chapel, and in front of all the school, read a lesson from our sacred text.  His reading was by no means perfect; there were some stumbles and halts along the way.  But everything else about that moment was perfect – including especially how Jimmy’s words were received. As I looked out at all the students as they listened to Jimmy speak, I could see in their faces that they knew how high the stakes were for him.  Like me, they were hanging breathlessly on Jimmy’s every word, praying silently to themselves that he would make it through to the end of the lesson. And when Jimmy finally got to the refrain that always closes our lessons, “The Word of the Lord,” a raucous cheer broke out.  Never before have I heard a group of kids respond, “Thanks be to God,” with such utter abandon.
         Like Jimmy, each of us has his or her own vulnerability, and all the anxieties that go with it.  For some of us it may well be a fear of speaking in public.  For others, it may be an intense insecurity, an emotional problem, an isolating sense of loneliness, a physical disability, an addiction, or something else.  But whatever it is, each of us, precisely because we are human, has some weakness that is part and parcel of who we are. 
         The message of the King’s Speech, and the power of St. Paul’s teaching about the grace in weakness, is not some sentimental message that all will be well if we just try hard enough.  Nor is it that we can always overcome our weaknesses.  We often cannot.  The real lesson lies in the insight that true grace comes when we share our vulnerabilities with others, when we together name our weaknesses and understand them, and when, with God’s help, we together move through them. 
         This, too, is one of the deep truths of the Epiphany season in which we find ourselves.  What amazed the three wise men the night they visited the baby in the manger was not merely the fact that God reaches out to humanity in the birth of Jesus, but how God does so. God chooses to appear as the most vulnerable thing on earth:  an innocent baby, born to homeless peasants, in a desolate and forgotten part of the world, to a people persecuted and oppressed by one of the most powerful human empires on earth.  God chooses to be most present where humanity is most vulnerable. 
         God is with us in our weakness.  And the corollary to this truth is that we are called, in turn, to open ourselves up to the vulnerabilities of others, and to be present to them in their weakness.  The great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed it this way:  "We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."  To notice and reach out to another human being in her suffering, and to stand in solidarity with her, is the essence of the divine.
         And that is precisely why Jesus begins his famous Sermon on the Mount with the completely counterintuitive words of the Beatitudes that we heard in our gospel lesson. Jesus invites his disciples to see God’s blessing in values that the world may well view as ‘weak’ and ‘foolish’ – blessed are the humble, the meek, the peacemakers, the pure.  Blessed are those who detach themselves from material things, who persevere in the face of adversity, who thirst for righteous and just living, who weep and care for those who suffer.  Blessed are those who do these things, Jesus assures us.
         As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains, “the Beatitudes are not a heroic ethic,” but instead they are “the constitution of a new people.”  These blessings are not so much a list of moral requirements as they are a description of a community gathered by and around a heavenly vision of reckless love for all that is precious and fragile in the human condition.  “You cannot possibly live by the demands of the Beatitudes on your own,” Hauerwas writes, “but that is the point.  Their demands are designed to make us depend upon God and one another.” 
         We are living in an uncertain and frightening time; a time when our country is turning away the weakest among us, and acting more from a place of fear than compassion.  Our place in history is perhaps not as different from the first century world into which our Savior was born as we like to think. As we seek to find our bearings in the midst of such chaos, let us not be misled by the hollow words of the powerful who purport to lead us; but instead, let us follow Jesus. Let us welcome the stranger, house the displaced, feed the hungry, find blessing in weakness, and look upon each other in our sufferings as much as in our accomplishments.  And together with Bertie and Jimmy and all our other fellow-sufferers, let us keep this prayer close to our hearts:  

         “Gracious and loving God, who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong, save us from the vanities of this world and the conceits of our own minds, so that we might find grace in weakness and become fools for your love’s sake.  We pray these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”