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The Beatitudes

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Luke 6 v 17-26

Last week Gary opened his sermon by saying that in Café they were looking at football as a metaphor for theology with it being very much from the supporters’ point of view the going through the pain, the sense of shared experience, and the faint insistence of hope. Then the letting go the accepting of the bigger story and the faith to live that out.

So, to keep the football theme going. This time it is not about the supporters and their experience it is more about picking the team and setting out the basic guidelines. Like me when you were at school you might remember kicking a ball around in the playground at breaktime. There were no real rules perhaps just a group of you either kicking the ball or each other with jumpers at each end for goal posts and that was about as sophisticated as it got.

Things were a bit different in the PE lessons the teachers were there trying to bring a bit of organisation. My experience of PE teachers was that they didn’t really say much. They divided you up gave you some pointers and basic rules and then relied on their whistles. If things got really out of hand you might have got a whack across the backside with a plimsole.

But football analogies only go so far!

Jesus in our Gospel reading is speaking to the disciples, those he has chosen and he gives them four promises and four warnings. Happiness and Woes or Blessings and Curses. When you look around the world today this is all seems upside down or is it the right way up?

The first one – Happy/Blessed are you poor.

Take a moment to think, what is the dominant force in our western society. I would venture to suggest that it is money. Some might say politics but I think economics outweighs and influences more. But it is not money on its own it is what it leads to in us, the desire to consume, to have; the way we judge others; is it by what they have. We value others and assess their status by how much people have and their ability to use it and perhaps look down on those who don’t have it. Richard Foster in his book “Money Sex and Power” says when properly placed and effectively functioning money can enrich human life in wonderful ways. Food, shelter, education etc. The demon of money is greed and also maybe fear of losing or having none.

This first beatitude is not necessarily about giving things up or that we have to go without. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship says “Therefore Jesus calls his disciples blessed. He spoke to men who had already responded to the power of his call, and it is that call that has made them poor, afflicted and hungry. He calls them blessed, not because of their privation, or the renunciation they have made, for these are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which they are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes”.

This is hard but it is the circumstance of Jesus disciples in every area of life. There can be no security, no possessions, no spiritual power, no experience or knowledge. We need to be ready to give up things that stand in the way of our answering Jesus call. His call is the sole focus.

The next is – Happy/Blessed are those who weep/mourn.

John Stott in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount talks about this as the second stage of spiritual blessing. It is one thing he says to identify and acknowledge what is standing in our way of our answering Jesus call but it is quite another to grieve and to mourn over it. Confession is one thing contrition is another.

Is Jesus saying those who mourn and weep understand and feel the pain of the world and the part that they play in causing it. Is this what true repentance looks like?

One of my current favourite writers is Barbara Brown Taylor who has written a very thin book (only 72 pages) but is heavy on content. The clue is the title which is – Speaking of sin. In one chapter entitled recovering repentance she talks about how easy it is for her to think of particular churches some that operate like clinics, where sick patients receive sympathetic care for the disease, they all share. It is palliative care for the most part. No one expects to be fully cured, which is why there is not much emphasis on individual sin. She says such churches subscribe to a kind of no-fault theology in which no one is responsible because everyone is.

She goes on that it is easy for her to think of churches that operate like courts, where both sin and sinner are named out loud, along with the punishments appropriate to their crimes. On the whole, the sinners identified by this full-fault theology tend to be people who do not belong to the church but she does know of one church that calls pregnant, unmarried teenagers up before the congregation to be publicly rebuked!!

True repentance will not serve either of these purposes. It will not work in the church as clinic because repentance will not make peace with sin. Instead, it calls individuals to take responsibility for what is wrong with the world – beginning with what is wrong with them – and to join with other people who are dedicated to turn things around. True repentance will not work in the church as courtroom either, because it is not interested in singling out scapegoats and punishing them. Instead, it calls whole communities to engage in the work of repair and reconciliation without ever forgetting their own culpability for the way things are.

If individual sinners are called to account, then it is never for the purpose of harming or humiliating them but always with goal of restoring them to life. What we need is a third type of church; church as community of transformation where members are expected and supported to be about the business of new life.

This is – Weeping to laughter!

A personal anecdote to illustrate. On Wednesday I was out on business with my work colleague Sharon. We had finished our meeting and were killing time at Birmingham New Street station. We were talking about our plans for the weekend – she has gone to Budapest for a romantic weekend. I told her I was delivering a sermon and what the topic was. She is not a person of faith but did attend church with her children when they were younger so is familiar with this passage and this story. She does not feel she can attend church anymore and considers the church to be hypocritical citing abuse scandals and the perceived lack of contrition/change and what she saw as the lack of action in helping the poor. I hope she can find faith but at the moment the church for her is a stumbling block.

This is the last one I want to look at – Happy are you when people hate you.

This, I would suggest, is a natural consequence, an outworking of what we do; what we say and how we live. If we are true to Jesus call and promise there will be an inevitable clash between the irreconcilable differences between the values of God and those of the world. Indeed, if we do not encounter opposition then that might be telling us something; are there things we need to attend to?

This made me wonder why was it that they killed Jesus? Was it because he proclaimed that he was God? I don’t think so. It had so much more to do with the way he exposed and upset those in power those who kept the majority of people away from God; those who imposed layers of rules/hoops to be jumped through just so people were kept in place and the few benefited. He told the truth and took the right course of action; they did not like it.

All this is eventually focussed at the cross and still there are words of forgiveness. There is no retaliation, no pretence, no self-pity. Jesus is sure of his path driven by love to set us free. As his disciples we tread that same path and are called to respond in the same way.

We can only do that if we acknowledge our poverty and kneel before God and allow him into all of our life. I would like to finish with a short story; an anonymous story from a book by Margaret Silf. It is called.

 

‘Rooms to Rent’

God was walking the streets, looking for a home for his son. He knocked on my door. Well, I suppose I could let him rent the little spare bedroom, I thought. He read my thoughts, I was looking to buy, he said.

Oh, I don’t think I really want to sell, I replied. I need the place for myself, you see. But you could use the back room. The rent’s quite low. Why don’t you come in and have a look?

So he came in, and he looked around. I like it, he said. I’ll take it on your own terms.

Once he was settled in, I began to wonder whether I’d been a bit mean. There he was, cooped up in that little spare bedroom. God must have been having similar thoughts, because he was there again at my door.

Would you have any more space now, do you think? He asked gently.

Well, I’ve been thinking, and I could offer your son and extra room to rent now.

Thank you, said God. I’ll take the extra room. Maybe you’ll decide to give my son more room later on. Meanwhile, I like what I see.

Time went on. I was still feeling a bit uneasy about this transaction. I’d like to give you some more room, I kept telling God, but you see it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me.

I understand, God kept saying. I’ll wait. I like what I see.

Eventually, I decided to offer God the whole of the top floor. He accepted gratefully, on behalf of his son. Well, I can spare it really, I told him. I’d really like to let you have the whole house but I’m not sure…

I understand, said God. I’ll wait. I like what I see.

A bit more time went by, and there was God again at my door. I just want you to know, he said, that I’m still very interested in buying your house. I wouldn’t put you out. We’d work it out together. Your house would be mine and my son would live here.

Actually, he added, you’d have more space than ever before. I really can’t see how that could be true, I replied, hesitating on the doorstep.

I know, said God. And to be honest I can’t really explain it. It’s some thing you have to discover for yourself. It only happens if you let my son have the whole house.

A bit risky I said.

Yes, but try me, encouraged God.

I’m not sure I’ll let you know.

I’ll wait, said God, I like what I see.

 

Richard Harwood