Sunday, 29 January 2017

Beatitudes not Platitudes

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
29 January 2017, 11.00am



Micah 6.8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 5.1-12  
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessèd are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
for theirs is the future of humanity.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessèd are those who have stared long into the abyss,
for theirs is honesty beyond grief.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessèd are those who resist retaliation,
for the earth will never be won by force.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessèd are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
for the truth will outlive all lies.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
            Blessèd are those who forgive the unforgivable,
            for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
            Blessèd are those who know themselves truly,
            for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
            Blessèd are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
            for they are following the path of the son of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            Blessèd are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
            for the future is born out of such choices.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
            Blessèd are you when you stand up for truth
            and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
            You're not the first and you won't be the last.

            I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn see it differently,
            and then choose to live that alternative into being.



In Monty Python's memorable take on the sermon on the mount,
            in the film 'The Life of Brian',
we get to see the response to Jesus' preaching
            by those stood at the back of the crowd,
                        barely able to hear the preacher on the hilltop in the distance,
                        and misunderstanding his words to great comic effect. 

If you haven't seen it for a while,
            your homework this week is to watch it with my blessing.

The exchange includes everything
            from blessings on cheesemakers rather than peacemakers,
            to a discovery that it's the meek and not the Greek who shall inherit the earth,
                        which, as Mrs BigNose points out, ‘is nice, isn't it,
                        because the meek have a hell of a time’.

After a brief fight, the characters agree to head off to catch a stoning,
            and as they leave one of the Jewish revolutionaries is heard to mutter,

'Well, blessed is just about everyone
            with a vested interest in the status quo, as far as I can tell.'

To which his friend replies,

'Yeah. Well, what Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate
            is that it's the meek who are the problem.'

And I suspect it was ever thus,
            that those at the back of the crowd are ideologically, as well as geographically,
            distant from the voices at the centre.

Of course, what the Python team have intuitively picked up on
            in their version of the sermon on the mount,
is something that we see throughout Matthew's gospel,
            which is that some people, just a few,
                        get the truth of the message that Jesus is proclaiming;
            whereas others, the majority, are distant from him
                        and react badly to what they think they have heard.

This is almost certainly a reflection
            of the situation facing the community that Matthew was writing for,
                        some fifty years after the time of Jesus,
            where those in the small struggling congregations of Jesus-followers
                        were finding that most of those with whom they were trying to share
                                    the good news of their faith were disinterested at best,
                        and more often than not actively hostile to the challenge
                                    that the message of Jesus brought to their world and worldview.

And so Matthew gives his readers the sermon on the mount,
            with its memorable opening lines known now as the beatitudes,
to succinctly capture the force and energy of the preacher on the hilltop,
            whose voice continued to echo down the decades to their own time,
                        offering comfort and challenge in equal measure
                        to any who would dare to take the time to listen.

And it has ever been thus.

Radical Jesus-following has always been a minority sport;
            and I would suggest that those times where Christianity
                        has done a deal with power to get its message heard more widely
            have always resulted in a dilution of the message
                        away from its radical core.

In any form of Christendom,
            the beatitudes become a blessing on just about anyone
                        with a vested interest in the status quo,
            and the heart of it all gets lost once again.

And the problem is as real for us today
            as it was for Matthew's community in the first century;
the beatitudes of Jesus are all too easily reduced to the platitudes of Jesus,
            as statements of revolutionary challenge
            become aphorisms of anodyne comfort.

Did anyone else notice the Bible reading at Donald Trump’s inauguration?
            Revd Samuel Rodriguez, an evangelical Latino
                        who has on occasions been critical of Donald Trump,
            came to the podium and simply read the Beatitudes
                        from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

It seems to me to be almost beyond irony
            that the inaugural speech of Jesus’ ministry
should be set in such stark contrast
            with the inaugural presidential speech that followed it,
and yet I suspect for many of those listening,
            for many of those who see in their new president
                        a voice for their pro-life, religiously conservative agendas,
            there was no irony at all.

The radical revolutionary message of Jesus
            is all too easily domesticated to powerful agendas,
and we need to take care to hear it afresh,
            lest we too miss the demands it makes on us and our own lives.

And what does this blessèd word ‘blessèd’ mean anyway?

I mean, it's all very well asserting that the meek and the mourning are blessed,
            but one has to wonder what earthly use is that to the person crippled by grief,
                        or too timid to speak up or out?

It's tempting here to parody the words of Prime Minister May,
            and assert that Blessèd means Blessèd, and that's the end of it;
but that doesn't strike me as a satisfactory response to any question.

So in an attempt to get to the heart of the beatitudes,
            I thought I'd have a go at re-rendering them.

I want to make it clear that I'm not, here,
            seeking to re-write the words of scripture;
rather I'm offering a reflection on the words of Jesus that Matthew gives us,
            to help us engage with them in fresh ways.

Blessèd are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
for theirs is the future of humanity.

Blessèd are those who have stared long into the abyss,
for theirs is honesty beyond grief.

Blessèd are those who resist retaliation,
for the earth will never be won by force.

Blessèd are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
for the truth will outlive all lies.

Blessèd are those who forgive the unforgivable,
for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

Blessèd are those who know themselves truly,
for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

Blessèd are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
for they are following the path of the son of God.

Blessèd are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
for the future is born out of such choices.

Blessèd are you when you stand up for truth
and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
You're not the first and you won't be the last.

I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn see it differently,
and then choose to live that alternative into being.

So firstly, I wonder, what does it mean to be blessed?
            It’s not a word we use a lot, really, is it; at least not in its archaic form
                        of two syllables with an accent over the second ‘e’ – bless-èd
It has resonances of Shakespeare and the King James Bible;
            and it’s modern pronunciation of ‘blest’
            has lost much of its depth of meaning in contemporary usage,
                        often reduced to a vague assertion of feeling fortunate.
            As in, ‘I’m blest to have you has a friend’.

It’s further popular rendering as just ‘bless’ has robbed it of almost all meaning,
            becoming little more than a patronising response to someone who has tried,
                        but failed, to achieve anything worthwhile.
            As in, ‘Look at that drawing she’s done, Bless!’

            Ugh.

Anyway, I wonder if we can find a way to bring it back to relevance,
            to rediscover the force of what Jesus was doing by proclaiming a blessing
            on the meek, the mournful, and the merciful.

In the Jewish religious context of the first century,
            one of the great theological debates
            was that of who was worthy to receive the blessing of God?

The Jews held that they were God’s chosen people,
            called from among the nations,
            and blessed by God with the gift of a ‘special relationship’ with him.

But within this general calling and blessing, there was a further level of disparity
            between those who were regarded as blessed, and those who were not;
            and there was much discussion as to what God’s blessing looked like.

If you think that the prosperity gospel of health and wealth is a new phenomenon,
                        and unique to Christianity,
            then think again, because the ancient Jews got there first.

There was a school of thought that held that if you were obedient to the covenant,
            you would experience the blessings of God as a reward for your faithfulness.
These blessings might be financial,
            or related to health, or to family life, such as having lots of children.

It’s not quite, ‘touch the screen, and you’re gonna be healed’,
            but it comes from a similar place,
            in terms of seeing God’s blessings as linked to human obedience and sacrifice.

Jesus wasn’t the first to challenge this idea,
            and, for example, the book of Job is an extended piece of theological reflection
                        on why bad things happen to good people,
            questioning where God is in the face of human suffering.

Again, these are not new questions…

The prophet Micah, who we heard from in our first reading this morning,
            also questioned the nature of the sacrifice that God might require,
            in order for his blessings to be dispensed. He asked,

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? 
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
            with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
            the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

And the answer that he hears to this question is radical:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
            but to do justice,
            and to love kindness,
            and to walk humbly with your God?

It is in this tradition of Micah and Job,
            that Jesus started proclaiming blessings
            on those whom others would despise.
Many voices told people that their vulnerability was a curse;
            Jesus, however, says it is a blessing.

And so…

Blessed are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
            for theirs is the future of humanity.

This really is the great lie,
            it is the great deceit of Satan.
Because the moment any one of us starts to believe
            that one life is more precious to God than any other,
then the door is opened for all manner of evil to take root and flourish.

Against this, the radical message that Jesus proclaimed
            was that the kingdom of heaven
            belongs to those with a poverty of spirit,
to those with an un-inflated view of their own self-importance,
            to those who know that any value they have in life comes from God,
            and not from any achievement or status they may hold.

But so many of the messages of our society fly in the face of true poverty of spirit.
            From the advertisers’ mantra that ‘you’re worth it’
                        to fevered assertions of America, or indeed any nation, First,
            and the nationalistic protectionism that comes
                        from a mindset of ‘my country right or wrong’.

Friends, we need to recover a Godly sense of our own value,
            and to discover in that, the value of those others
            whom we would otherwise so easily diminish.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who have stared long into the abyss,
            for theirs is honesty beyond grief.

Bereavement can sap all hope, but there is hope here
            that those who have learned to live with great loss
                        may discover through their grief the brutal honesty of human mortality,
            in ways that others will never grasp.

The comfort for those who mourn is not won easily, or quickly;
            and it comes through pain and tears.

But in a world which despises weakness,
            and which denies the transience of life,
the ability to out-stare death is a blessing known only to some;
            and yet is a great gift that they bring to humanity.

We each of us, in our own way, one day,
            will look death in the face,
and on that day we will need those who have seen that face before,
            and learned to live with its reality.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who resist retaliation,
            for the earth will never be won by force.

We can build walls and missiles to our heart’s content,
            securing our borders with Mutually Assured Destruction,
            and ever more stringent restrictions on movement.

We can make our pacts and alliances,
            and stand in solidarity with countries of like-mind.
We can love NATO or hate it.

But, says Jesus, the earth does not belong to those with guns, or missiles,
            it belongs to the meek;
it belongs to those who resist retaliation,
            to those who will commit themselves to alternatives to the spiralling violence
            that generates strike after counter-strike.

The future belongs to those who will build bridges and not walls,
            to those who turn swords into ploughshares
            and guns into statues.

We will need creativity and courage
            if we are to stand against the prevailing mind-set of retaliation.
But it is a fight that is worth the effort,
            because all other paths lead to death.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
            for the truth will outlive all lies.

We live in a world of fake news,
            and alternative facts.
We live in a post-truth world,
            where the lie wins the argument if it’s said loud enough and often enough.

From ‘Crooked Hillary’ to £350 million a week on the NHS,
            we are constantly invited and cajoled to abandon truth,
            and follow the herd.

And yet where in this is righteousness, where in this is truth?

The answer, to quote the X files, is that the truth is out there,
            we just need to seek it out, and then speak it out.

And this is not easy – it is hard, thirsty work, seeking the springs of righteousness,
            but we must not abandon the quest,
            and we must resist compromise.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who forgive the unforgivable,
            for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

I mourned the passing recently of Jill Saward,
            you may remember her, she was a victim of the Ealing vicarage rape attack.
I heard her speak once, at Greenbelt,
            and the courage with which she faced the crime that had been done to her,
            and her willingness to speak language of forgiveness as a path to wholeness,
had a profound effect on me.

And in my pastoral work I speak sometimes with those who have been greatly wronged,
            victims of abuse of all kinds,
and I have never found it appropriate to tell anyone
            that they must forgive their abuser.

But when someone comes to the conclusion
            that the path from victimhood lies through the dark valley of forgiveness,
and when they realise that despite the wrong done to them
            they share common humanity with those who do wrong to others,
Something profound shifts,
            and a moment of blessing can emerge.

But when we think of this on a global scale,
            when we bring to mind the terrorist atrocities of all the years,
            from Isis to the IRA and beyond,
and when we see the historical scars of un-forgiveness
            written across whole societies and nations,
we can begin to see why mercy is a blessing that cuts both ways.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who know themselves truly,
            for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

In my sermon a couple of weeks ago,
            I made reference to the quote from Socrates
            that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’.
And I find myself wondering more and more
            whether the journey of discipleship in Christ
            is primarily a journey into the love of God,
which takes shape in our lives
            as we learn to see ourselves not as we want to be seen,
                        and not as others see us,
            but as God sees us.

The challenge here, is that God sees us with the unflinching gaze of love,
            and we so resist the idea of being loved.

We live with such suppressed guilt, such internalised self-hatred,
            that the idea of being loved, of being truly forgiven and accepted,
            is as alien to us as our long lost childhoods.

And yet, and yet God loves us,
            and forgives us,
                        and when we learn to see ourselves as God sees us,
                        we discover purity in place of pain,
                        and find the face of God in the midst of our complex existence.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
            for they are following the path of the son of God.

The path of peacemaking is not supposed to be straightforward.
            It’s never just a passive pacifism that lies down and dies
                        when confronted with violent opposition.

Christ-like nonviolence is something far more creative,
            something far more subversive.

Jim Gordon, former principal of the Scottish Baptist College,
            wrote this week that the

Followers of the crucified Lord have a long tradition of resistance
            through revolutionary love, bridge-building hope,
            perseverance in peace, and joy in trumping injustice.[1]

And those of us who are watching with concern
            as sabre rattling escalates on the international stage,
will need to be provocatively nonviolent
            if we are to speak out a different, more Christ-like narrative,
            for people to learn to live by.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
            for the future is born out of such choices.

And some will face persecution
            because they will not compromise on what they know to be right.

Just before Christmas we had an event here at Bloomsbury
            with Moazzam Begg speaking about his time as a detainee in Guantanamo bay,
            eventually released without charge.

The temptation to turn an experience of persecution into a quest for vengeance
            is ever before those who have been wronged,
and those who make the choice to receive but not to give out,
            find themselves walking the path of the cross,
            and setting a new direction for those who follow.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are you when you stand up for truth
            and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
You're not the first and you won't be the last.

I think that too often Christians have their Earth-Heaven trajectory
            the wrong way around.

The dawning of the kingdom of heaven
            is not about us going to heaven,
            it’s about heaven coming to us.

As Jesus taught his disciples to pray,
            ‘your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.’

Do you get it?
            Can you see it?

Most can’t, and won’t,
            and that’s the truth of it.

But those of us who can,
            those of us who are close enough to the one at the centre
            to hear his voice and heed his words;
we get it, we get the kingdom,
            and we must then live that kingdom into being.
We must live as if it were true,
            until it is true.

I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn see it differently,
            and then choose to live that alternative into being.




[1] http://livingwittily.typepad.com/my_weblog/2017/01/-the-beatitudes-are-a-checklist-of-resistance-strategies-to-dominant-cultures.html

1 comment:

bobgardiner said...

thankyou Simon, glad to see I'm not alone in the world though it often feels that way.