Rev Kate Harford, 5th Nov 2017
I absolutely adore this passage in Matthew, and enjoy using it at times of change. So, Peta actually read this at our wedding, and so when I was at home talking to my wife about what I should read and what I should preach on, and she said ‘Do ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’!’. And I had to promise that I would reference it. The person who made our wedding cake put the whole of the Beatitudes on the cake, it was very beautiful, and at the bottom etched a little piece of cheese, just for us to see. But I will not be talking about cheesemakers, or indeed any manufacturers of dairy products.
This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew – in Luke it’s the sermon on the plain, but the message is very similar – so it comes up in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, and it’s probably from their shared source. And it’s part of the longest continuous passage in any of the gospels which is purely Jesus speaking, which is one of the things that makes it really special. We have lots of parables, we have lots of sayings, but in the canonical gospels, the sermon on the mount is the longest continuing passage of Jesus’ narrative. Which means that for our purposes in a church, it’s one of the most useful and intimate pieces of teaching about what our role is and who we are called to be as the Body of Christ.
It feels like it’s an ideal text for a fresh start for any of us, because it’s a really optimistic idea of what it means to be blessed. And it’s also quite a contradictory text, it makes you think, it makes you work for your blessings. (But I’ll do the work for you tonight. I’ll try)
Jesus starts: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the enemy of faith is not doubt. The enemy of faith is certainty. The poor in spirit are people who know that they need God. People who know that they lack something in their emotional and spiritual lives are people who are going to turn to God for that something. People who believe firmly that they have everything they need in themselves, in their intellect, in their Bible without the work of the Spirit, for example, will struggle and will founder, but they will not recognise their own lack and their own need. Those of us who know we are impoverished in our spirit, know how to lean on God.
Ultimately overcoming our doubts, as we work through, as we hit our stumbling blocks, as we find ourselves without work , or without an income, or as we hit a really difficult place in our relationships, we overcome those things and we know that we are strengthened by them. They are not goods in their own right, they are very difficult and painful things to go through, but the poverty of spirit that comes with them is something that can be overcome and brings with it its own richness. Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the people who lack their health, and grieve for it. Who have lost a job, and grieve for it. Who have had a change in their relationship, and grieve for it. Who have suffered the loss, the death, of a close family member or friend, and grieve for them. Again, this is not to say that grief is a good in itself. We are not being asked to look forward to the times when we grieve. But to know that in those times there is comfort. People who suffer a grief often talk about a drawing together of the people around them – and a drawing away of some – but it’s an opportunity to come together and to find community. People find community in death, and in loss, and they find hope. But it doesn’t just say ‘blessed are those who mourn’, its says ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’. Like poverty of spirit, grief is something that encourages you to go back, and to look to God. Grief is something that forces to turn and look at what we still have. We may not still have our health, or our job, or our best friend. But we still have God.
I always think, when I think about grief in the context of the Bible, as well, that God understands grief. Because we are told, that at the moment that Jesus died on the cross, there was a separation of God and Christ, and that both, or all elements of the Trinity felt a sense of grief. Christ felt abandoned, and will carry that through eternity, that sense of what it means to have lost somebody. The only time in the Bible when we are told that Jesus began to weep, is when his beloved friend Lazarus died. Jesus understands our grief, so when he said ‘blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted’, he knows of what he speaks.
Blessed are the meek. Peta told me once that one of their early experiences of coming to God was through a poster that their Christian Union put up – in your college, I think it was? – that said ‘Meek? Mild? As if!’ and it is marvellous, but the way we translate the Bible, really hasn’t changed a great deal over the last 400 years. We sort of think that if a word was good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for us. But words shift and change in their meanings. So meek does mean broken and cowed and sad and easy to control, but it also refers to somebody who has a control of their own strength. So a little bit like the passages where we advised to turn the other cheek – because it will irritate the heck out of the person whose just slapped you. Or to carry somebody’s pack an extra mile – because to do that for a Roman soldier would have humiliated the soldier who had asked you to carry their pack, because in doing so you would have forced them to break Roman law about how much they could ask of a civilian; those things are all in some way, meekness. They’re taking control of your own strength, and of the strength that other people seek to impose over you, and turning them into a blessing.
So, blessed are the meek – blessed are those who harness their potential, and use it for the good of the dominion of God. Blessed are those who take their strength, and hold on to it, until it’s needed. Blessed are those who can wait for their moment.
And so it makes sense to me that the next thing that comes is: ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’. Because everyone I’ve ever known who is a powerful and great activist has doubts, they have grief, and they know their own strength. When you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you take your doubt, and your fear, and your knowledge that God can do everything but we also have to contribute something. You take your grief at the people who have died, and the people who have suffered. Whether it’s because the government didn’t respond appropriately to the origins of the AIDS crisis, or whether it’s because people are having to choose right now, this winter, between heating their homes and eating; whatever it is that grieves your heart, you need that, to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who mourn because without it, you cannot grow in your hunger and thirst for righteousness in the dominion of God. Blessed are the meek, who know when to bring their message forward. Not in a cynical way, but who can wait, and build their strength, and build their resources, and gather their people, and find the moment to stand in front of the House of Commons and ask for equal marriage because then was the time. To petition for a re-writing of the Gender Recognition Act because now is the time. People who have the courage and the patience to wait. Blessed too, I think, are the fiery, who have been fighting and fighting and campaigning for this the whole time. But blessed are the meek.
Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. Again, these aren’t passive people. I know peacemakers who break into arms factories and literally try and beat weapons into ploughshares. We have all heard of nuns who are arrested because they won’t leave, we all know of people who have chained themselves to the ExCel centre, so that the government couldn’t sell weapons to other governments. Blessed are the peacemakers, not because they themselves are peaceful, but because the world will be better off with their action in it. And to do that work is the ultimate act of mercy and purity of heart. To be able to stand in front of somebody and say, as many people in the American Civil Rights Movement for example did, ‘I can take this arrest’. I was listening to an activist speak about a Black Lives Matter protest in Louisiana, and as they were walking up to a church (simply where they had left their cars, you know, they weren’t looking for a fight, just with the agreement of the church they’d left their cars there), and as she was approaching the church they could see the police, and she said they started to discuss: who has a clean record, who has a job that will allow them to be arrested, who can take this arrest? Who has the mercy in them to take a hit for everybody else? Who is going to take mercy on the community, because somebody is going to be arrested today – who is going to be the one to do it?
The merciful and the pure in heart and the peacemakers are not the quiet ones, necessarily. They may be, but very often I think when we read this we think, oh the meek, the peacemakers, oh aren’t they lovely? That’s probably not me, I’ll move on…. But it is, it can be, all of us, and we can aspire to theses things. Because within the Beatitudes, and contained within this whole sermon, is the idea of the qualities that make up the Body of Christ.
That amongst any congregation in any church in the world, in the hundreds of thousands are meeting in this very moment, there are people who are grieving, and whose blessing is in their community and in God. There are people who are not with them because they’ve been arrested for standing up for what is right. There are people who are holding back and waiting for their moment, who are holding on to their meekness, but know that their time and their change is coming. There are people doubting, painfully aware of the poverty of their own spirit, and desperate to be told that God loves them regardless. The congregation and the Body of Christ is always made up of a diverse range of blessed people. We aren’t all all of these things all of the time. But all of us is all of these things all of the time.
And to understand and to pray with this text is a really powerful way of trying to find where you are in your faith journey at the moment. There’s an Ignatian technique called the examen, which encouraged you to reflect on your day (or week, or month, you can do it for any period) in a very honest way and to say ‘what hurt me, and why did it hurt me?’. I sometimes feel we could do something similar with the Beatitudes. Where is my poverty of spirit today? Is it in my hope? Am I lacking in hope, or am I lacking in faith? Perhaps I’m lacking in faith in other people, but my faith in God is very strong. What can I use that for? If I’m struggling with my faith in other people, is now my time to harness my strength and talk to the government? You know, maybe the government are the people that I don’t have faith in at the moment. And maybe in doing that I’ll find my faith in the other activists around me. Or, maybe I’m grieving, maybe that’s a sign that maybe I need to be on my on with God right now.
When you look at this text really honestly, you can see where you are in it. And the question then I suppose for us as a congregation, for any congregation, is: are you then ready an able to take where you are, to claim where you are, and to put it to work for the kingdom? Because in all of this, throughout the whole of the text, Jesus repeatedly says things like: ‘for theirs is the dominion of heaven’, ‘for they will be comforted’ -this is very much a text that looks forward to a time after the resurrection, to now, when we will need all of these gifts to keep us going. What do you need in your own life to be ready for that? If you are grieving, who do you need to speak to? Who do you need to lift you up? The Bible tells us you will be comforted, and God will comfort you, but who do you need a human touch from? Perhaps you could have the faith to ask them. When you feel impoverished in your spirit, who do you feel you can be honest with? Who can you tell? Is it just between you and God? That’s OK, but if you can’t pray right now, who can you ask to pray for you? We are a community, and today is about community, and about moving forward in community, and every time we come together within MCC we claim our community with the whole world. Maybe there’s somebody you lost contact with several years ago, but you know they’re a powerful pray-er – look them up on facebook, you know they’ll pray for you.
We are all one body of Christ. We have our diversity and that it what gives us strength. Because the church is the community of souls – of souls who are blessed in their grief, of souls who are blessed in their strength and their meekness, and their peacemaking – we need to celebrate that diversity. It’s one of the joys of MCC is that we at least talk about it. We know that we are diverse in our genders and our ages and our orientations, but we are also diverse in our faith experiences. We are diverse in what we came to church with tonight. So as we celebrate everything that the Village MCC means, and as we celebrate everything and all of the potential that Peta’s ministry will have in this space, it’s a good time to take stock. To really think about where your gifts are and where you’re using them. Where your blessings are and who you might be able to share them with.
How can you take your Beatitude gifts, your blessings, and use them to bless others? As you go into the week, there will be times when you feel afraid, or when you are concerned that somebody around you isn’t able to open up or to live the way that you hope they will – just remember that in Jesus we are all blessed, and because we are all blessed, we all have the opportunity to bless other people. Keep in mind the blessing that belongs to you, and look in this text for the blessings that belong to other people. Try and share them with one another. And I know that Peta will share all of their blessings with you as they have for many years with many congregations. It is an absolute joy to be here this evening and to be a part of it.