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Sunday 30 January 2011

'Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .'

Text: Matthew 5.1-12

Matthew's beatitudes summarise the essential spirit of Jesus' teaching in much the same way as the ‘Ten commandments’ summarise the Jewish Law.  The first hearers of the beatitudes would have been familiar with their form:  “Blessed are the so-and-so, for such and such will be theirs.”  This was a common form of blessing in the Mediterranean world, often used in general conversation as an aphorism which reinforced the common values that everyone shared . . . .  “How blessed is the man whose has many children; he shall have an easy retirement!”  The main function of the form was to exalt and support the status quo, the way things were . . .  “Blessed is the man who is sober in business; he shall enjoy much wine.”  Matthew's use of the form is striking, because it does precisely the opposite of what it is supposed to do.  Instead of reinforcing the most common values and attitudes, Matthew's beatitudes actually seek to subvert these values by giving a new status to all those who were regarded, at the time, as stupid, unlucky, or cursed by the gods:  the poor, the mourners, the persecuted.  It is not an exaggeration to say, in fact, that the beatitudes are more interested in changing the world for the sake of these people, than in affirming the world as it stands.

Now, over the years, the revolutionary power of the beatitudes was effectively watered-down through sentimental preaching and the establishment of state churches as an instrument of the aristocracy and merchant classes.  In this setting, the beatitudes were heard as nothing more than exemplary religious ideals which were of no practical use in everyday life.  They made sense when associated with heaven, God, and the end of human life, but they did not make sense with regard to the real world of daily toil and commerce.  Thankfully that time is past, for most of us at least.  We no longer live in a world dominated by State churches or, indeed, any church at all.  I suspect, nevertheless, that the revolutionary vision of the beatitudes remains quite lost.  For we are moderns, most of us, and moderns are likely to regard the beatitudes, along with the rest of Christianity, as little more than a curious oddity, a relic from a no-longer-relevant past.  They have nothing to say to us in our brave new world of medical miracles and technologised capital.

Well, we could capitulate to that point of view.  Most do.  But let me ask you this.  How would your life be different if you were to take a renewed interest in the studying the beatitudes and taking them seriously?  Note that I'm talking about your life, for the moment, not the life of the whole world or the whole church.  In modernity, we have been hoodwinked into thinking that what happens in the world and the church is beyond our influence.  When addressed in these more general terms, we moderns always seem to think that the speaker is talking to someone else.  So I want to make it clear that I am addressing each of you personally, as ‘individuals’.  How would your own life be different if you took the beatitudes seriously?

Perhaps you are a person who is satisfied about your life and the way you live it.  Perhaps you believe that you are doing all that God or the Universe requires, and that you will be welcomed into heaven with open arms.  Or . . .  Perhaps you are a person who is deeply aware that you haven't got it together, that despite all efforts to the contrary, you cannot produce your own contentment.  You are deeply aware that every joy in life, every moment of happiness, every sense of well-being comes as a gift from the Lord of love.  Whatever the case, the Lord stands before this morning and says, “Blessed are the ones who know the poverty of their own religion, for God belongs to them.”

Perhaps you a person absolutely at home in the modern age.  You welcome the new technology and you know how to use it.  For you, the world is full of promise and opportunity.  There's a dollar to be made around every corner.  The good life comes to those who work hard and make the most of their natural creativity.  Or . . .  perhaps you are a person who mourns the loss of a more gentle age,  when people knew their neighbours and looked out for each other; when the strong helped the weak, when the businessperson was content with his or her share and felt no need to buy out his or her competitors;  when the fruits of one's labour were shared with those who were poor. Whatever the case, the Lord stands before you this morning and says, “Blessed are the ones who mourn this passing, blessed are the gentle of heart, blessed are those who are merciful. They will receive back a hundred-fold of all they have given.  They shall inherit the earth.”

Perhaps you are a person who is content to live in your enclave of privilege and plenty.  You see your comforts as your due for hard work and right living.  Perhaps you turn a blind eye to the homeless in your own city, or the impoverished millions in that far-away place called the 'two-thirds world'.  Or . . .  perhaps you are a person who sees that your own peace is utterly interdependent with that of the whole world.  Perhaps you feel hungry and thirsty because so many others are hungry and thirsty.  Perhaps you weep and cry aloud because so many are denied their fair share of the earth's plenty. Whatever the case, the Lord stands before you this morning and says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.  Their hunger will be satisfied as they work to fill the stomachs of others.  Blessed are those who work for peace; they will know themselves to be children of God.”

Perhaps you are a person whose attention is always divided.  Deeply discontented with your life, you leap upon every fad which comes your way.  You buy what the advertisers tell you to buy.  You wear the right clothes and watch the right TV programmes.  Your values change according to your appetites for the day.  Perhaps, in your emptiness, you have become interested in astrology and bizarre theories about a spiritual world populated by angels and demons who control everything we do.  You feel like you have no control over your life, that you are a victim of forces far more powerful.  Or . . .  perhaps you are a person who knows that every heart is restless until it finds its home in God.  Perhaps you have seen that the pure vision of truth and beauty is forever being clouded by our desire for the lesser things. Perhaps you have renounced your idols for the sake of finding the one true God. Whatever the case, the Lord stands before you this morning and says, “Blessed is the heart that wills one thing, which seeks after God and God only.  In seeking, that heart will be found by God.”

If we were to study the beatitudes, and take them seriously, we would become what our faith tradition calls prophets, saints and mystics.  To be a prophet, a saint or a mystic is not only for those who have gone before us, those mysterious figures hidden away in some unattainable age that is no longer entirely real.  For every ordinary Christian, any who would take their faith seriously, is also called to be a prophet, a saint and a mystic.  Even today.  A mystic is one who makes communion with God their one goal in life.  A saint is one who has renounced worldly power and prestige for the sake of serving God.  A prophet is one who resists the values of the age in order to live the values of God's kingdom.  All Christians are called to be mystics, saints and prophets.  All Christians. 

Through the reading of these beatitudes, God today challenges all of us (myself included) to have done with trivial pursuits, and embrace the great vocation that God has put before us.  The vocation of blessedness.  Not ‘happiness’, mind you, as some would have it—even the “Good News” Bible.  Blessedness: a deep-down knowing that you are in the right place, the place where God would have you be.  Blessedness is not about ease or comfort.  Indeed, you can expect some level of vilification or even persecution for your efforts, as Matthew says.  But you will be blessed.  You will belong to God.  You will become an agent for the dawning of a wonderful new age in the world, and you will be granted that perfect peace for which all human beings seek, even in the midst of all that is wrong with the world.  In all seriousness, my friends, what else really matters?

Sunday 23 January 2011

The Way Less Travelled

Isaiah 9. 1-4; 1 Corinthians 1. 10-18; Matthew 4. 12-23

In 1916, as the horror of the 1st World War unfolded in Europe, the American poet Robert Frost wrote this poem.  Allow me to read it to you.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, and just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Friends, the lure of the well-trodden path is powerful.  In 1914, and again in 1939, the whole of Europe stood at the diverging of two paths.  One path, the path most taken in the history of that continent, led to the darkness of war. The other way, the way less taken, was (and is) the hard way of diplomacy and concession in order to make for peace.  In 1914, and again in 1939, Europe chose war:  the way most familiar, the way that made some winners but most losers, the way that is broad, making for the wholesale slaughter of many millions of lives.  In this, Europe did only what human beings usually do.  It chose the road most taken, the road for those intoxicated by the spoils of war, the lure of power and status and riches.

The members of Paul’s Corinthian church were not immune, it seems, from such intoxications.  Somehow they forgot the simple commandment of Jesus—‘love one another as I have loved you’—and became obsessed with the desire to lord it over each other.  They became like a modern political party, forming factions gathered around charismatic leaders or preachers, each claiming a holier ground than the others.  Each group in the Corinthian church claimed that their version of faith and practice was somehow more authentic than the others, a better expression of the traditions received from the fathers and mothers of the movement.  Which meant, of course, that all the people who did not take such a view were to be regarded with suspicion.  Indeed, with the passage of time and with the application of that lethal cocktail of fear and propaganda, these others became not simply suspicious, but the very face of all that is wrong with the world.  They became the enemy.  And isn’t this how it goes with so many of our churches; or, indeed, with our attitudes to those who come here seeking asylum?   Well, Paul will have none of it.  ‘What has all this lusting for power over and against one another to do with the message of the cross?’ he says.  ‘I came amongst you, not in power or using the arts of persuasive rhetoric to seduce you.  I came only with the message of the cross, which is sheer foolishness to those who lust for power.  But to those of us who are being saved, it is the very power of God’.  Listen to what the apostle is saying:  If we are Christians, if we are followers of Christ and his gospel, then there can be only one power:  the power of love, the power which lays down its power for the sake of including everyone in the wide embrace of God’s love.  The power iconically presented in figure of a crucified God.

You see God, the God of Jesus Christ, is one who takes the way less traveled, the way that human beings seem so very afraid to take.  A way that welcomes and embraces even the sin of another, and bears that sin, the horror of it, the hurt of it, the burden of it, in the hope that love will forge its doggéd way through the morass.  Emmanuel Lévinas, the Jewish philosopher, said famously that the only way in which we may all come to share equally in God’s justice is if we assume that the other, the other human being - any other human being - has a prior claim to our welcome and our service.  Prior, that is, to our own claims upon that person.  This way—the way of a God who wanders lonely though the dark and ritually impure regions of Naphtali and Zebulun, the places where the other may actually live—is the way that leads to light and liberation from oppression for us all.  This way—the way of a pilgrim Christ who wanders these anonymous and unimportant habitations, touching the impure and loving the loveless—this is the way by which the kingdom comes near.  If the God of Christians were a God who pandered to political success or popular opinion, then Christ would not have lived such a marginal existence, and died such a sordid death.  Christ would have marched into Jerusalem with an army of Zealots and taken power by force, and stunned everyone with his Hitleresque rhetoric, and built an empire on the labour of the poor and ritually unclean.  If God were really like that that, then Christ would have taken the way most travelled.

But he didn’t.  And, if we are his disciples, then we shall not either.  We shall take the least travelled way.  The way that looks out for the other, the neighbour, even at deep personal cost.  The way that owns and faces its fear of the other, and of what that other may do to me if I make myself vulnerable.  The way that calls on the power of God in prayer, the power of love, asking that God may do in me and in my relationships with others what I am unable to do for myself.   If we will welcome the other who is God, if we will sit at table and commune with God in prayer, then we shall find—as the English Benedictine John Maine often said—that the power to love even our enemies will grow within.  Not as the result of a personal project, a work of discipline which aims to purify the self by practiced technique or psychological training.  No, this power comes simply by letting God in.  By letting God be in us all that God would be.  And in the Christian tradition, that ‘letting be’ is known as the prayer of quiet.  The prayer which welcomes God in the less-traveled way of the Psalmist who said:  ‘One thing I asked of the lord . . .  to live in the house of the Lord all my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple’.  Here God is welcomed into my space, but immediately overwhelms and transgresses that space so that I find that the tables are turned and it is I, myself, who am being welcomed, I myself who cross a threshold into the superabundant hospitality of God.  

The way less travelled by is the way of the Christ.  He calls us as he called the sons of Zebedee to accompany him on that way.  To leave behind the sin that entangles, to be welcomed by God, that we may have power to welcome and love even our enemies.  There is no greater seducer than the God who was in Christ.  There is no greater wielder of power.  But unlike a Hitler, or Jim Jones, or a Jerry Falwell, the power of God is laid down at the feet of the sinner in an ultimate gesture of submission and vulnerability and love.  And the sinner must decide what to do with this vulnerable God.  May God grant us courage to choose the way less travelled by.  For that, and that only, will make the difference—for ourselves, for our church, for our world.