"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The ‘Be-Attitudes’, Matthew 5

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Epiphany 4, 27 Jan 2017, SJE ©2017  Matthew 5:1-12 (preaching series) Micah 6:1-8, Ps 15 “Be-Attitudes” [late posting, sorry, was at the UofA at a Metis conference Fri/Sat]

It’s a good week to be reflecting on some of the greatest comforts in the Gospels, these words of the Beatitudes after Matthew’s Gospel.  Since December I’ve been following twitter much more closely, after discovering that it is a fundamental mode for communication in the indigenous community.  Twitter, of course, has been going berserk the last few days with the US bans on people from certain Middle Eastern countries.  If you’re like me, you may be deeply disturbed by these happenings.  Which is good.  As I was writing this sermon I was listening to an iTunes mix which includes some of my favorite old albums (old here meaning the 1970’s).  The song ‘Biko’ by Peter Gabriel came up, and the lyrics caught my ear.  This is the story of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa who was beaten to death in police custody in September 1977.  In the lyrics…

“September 77, Port Elizabeth weather fine, It was business as usual, In police room 619…You can blow out a candle, But you can’t blow out a fire, Once the flame begins to catch, The wind will blow it higher. And the eyes of the world are watching now.”

The expression of compassion, and the feeling of pain are natural for the Christian.  One of the particular joys of following Christ is being particularly attenuated to injustice and immoral things in the world, and because we have this absolute frame of reference against which we hold up the changes and chances of this troublesome world they affect us in a unique and acute way.  But, it is important to keep some perspective – because as my hearkening back to Steve Biko shows, this is really the same story being played out again, and when we look through history the reality is that human history is littered with the blood of the innocent.  This does not excuse it, but it should instruct us to remember that this is the way of the world, and it is a way that is consistent with what we have been told to expect.

In fact, some of the reaction to Trump’s overtly racist rantings almost sounds like the end of the world is upon us.  For a Christian, we should not fall into this trap of expecting something different this side of the Second Coming.  One of the realities is that we in the first world have become so comfortable with having everything about life looked after for us, including anger when advanced life support takes more than a few minutes to reach us, that such events can quickly topple our world.  The Good News is the Gospels can inoculate us against such a reaction, and the Beatitudes in particular offer us a needed shot of vitamins to counteract the nutritional deficiencies brought on by this modern world.  We also know clearly our calling, which requires that we act in these situations, and not to react in a way that is destructive spiritually.

And how are we to act?  The message is clear throughout the entire body of Scripture.  Today we hear it from the Prophet Micah, “He has told you…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.”  This same message comes to us through the Beatitudes.  Before we get into the Beatitudes, a word on one of the typical traps they present.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.  The trap is to pull that blessing into a purely physical sense and to convert the blessing into a regulation: if Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed, then the preferable state of being must be to be poor in spirit.  This really trivializes what is being said in the blessing, and converts it into somewhat of a mockery of Christ’s words.  So, the kingdom of heaven is ours if we can become truly poor in spirit.  The second error is the opposite extreme, which is to spiritualize the blessing.  Regardless of how we live our lives, as long as we can achieve some state of poorness of spirit we will receive the kingdom of heaven.  So the rich can receive the kingdom of heaven, if they can generate sufficient poorness in spirit.  You see both errors involve a twisting of intention of the blessing – this is not necessarily a state to be aspired to, or to be sought out as an end unto itself, but a description of the reality that the coming of God’s kingdom means for the creation.  In fact, what this first blessing does is to clearly state a present reality: the poor in spirit already have the kingdom of heaven.  We’ll talk about this in a bit, but the tense of the verb is significant in this first Beatitude, for the next six are all set in the future tense.  So, while we can read these statements as descriptive for what a disciple looks, acts and thinks like, we have to be cautious if we attempt to make the prescriptive: you must be poor in spirit to receive the kingdom of heaven, therefore strive for that goal.

So, into the Beatitudes.  If you look at the overall structure of this text, we can group the blessing statements (this follows Bruner).  The first four are termed by Bruner as the ‘need’ Beatitudes, as they all relate to those who are in need of something.  These are the passive Beatitudes as there is no action required except that one be poor in spirit, mourning, meek or hungering for righteousness.  The response to the need is the Grace of God, for in each case the needfulness is met by the receipt of something. Like so many other examples in the Gospels, Jesus first meets people where they are, and provides the gifts of God’s grace to those in need before telling us what we need to do.  This is the lightening of the yoke in advance of the taking up of the task again.  This is the way we should receive these first four blessings, not as rules that tell us how we are to be, or what we are to strive towards to be holy, but affirmations that God will meet us right where we are.

I’ve already mentioned the poor in spirit briefly, but a further word.  What does being poor in spirit mean?  We might also describe poor in spirit as being spiritually inadequate for the task which God has set before us.  This is solace for all those who have reached the bottom, and particularly for those who know they have reached that bottom.  I may then ask rhetorically, who here needs God’s help to follow the revised teachings of the Law which Christ brought?  (hands)

If you think about some of the impossibilities presented to us, it becomes apparent that one of the teachings before us is to realize that we are all spiritually impoverished and inadequate because of our own failings.  I tell you the truth, if you look on a woman with lust in your heart you are guilty of adultery in your heart.  If you look on a brother or sister with anger in your heart, you are liable for judgement.  We will read a bit further on in Matthew, “and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (5:22).  It is a measure of how lightly we read these Gospels that many people who follow Christ will not hesitate to call, say Donald Trump a fool, when the Gospel leaves us no such latitude.  It is a sign of our impoverishment of spirit that we do such things without a second thought, and do so frequently.  And there is no saving provision offered there because the person is really foolish.  The goal is at least partly to help us learn that we are spiritually inadequate for the task before us, because only then we can begin to receive the blessing of God’s Grace.  As CS Lewis stated, God has gifts he wishes to give us, but cannot as long as our hands are full.

The following three Beatitudes deal with those who mourn, the meek (or ‘little people’) and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The response to each of these is offered in the future tense.  This offers a teaching in itself.  As I started out noting that the world could be a nasty place, we are reminded that the ultimate comfort of no more tears due to the loss of death, will only come with the Son returns on clouds to judge both the quick and the dead.  The earth will only be remade into the new Jerusalem after the final judgement, and those who hunger for justice will only be satisfied at that same cosmic moment.  This does not mean that we do not work and advocate to bring about better reality today; what it does mean is that we do not fall into the idolatry of believing that our work today will bring about that new Jerusalem, a trap that large parts of Christendom succumb to.  What it means is we do not respond like the pagans do, with despair and rage with each new injustice that is visited upon us.  Steve Biko was killed in 1977 – 40 years ago, before large parts of our community were born.  With each new news cycle there are stories of the meek being trampled, and there is no point in our history when injustice was not rampant and overwhelming the world over, even if it was worse in some quarters. As poet Malcolm Guite said in his reflection on remembrance day, “In every instant bloodied innocence, Falls to the weary earth.”

It also means that we must be cautious to not fall into the trap of selecting secular saviours who we expect to bring about a land of milk and honey.  Barak Obama was held up by many as the person who would herald in a new era of respect and peace.  I was reminded this was not necessarily so for all the world by a Native American who noted that Obama had been given a traditional name prior to his first inauguration, translated as “he who helps those across the land”…she immediately commented, true, except for all those that he dropped bombs on.  Being cautious believers means also realizing that we participate in cycles of global violence merely by being citizens of the first world.  It also means that we should expect, in this world, to spent a portion of our time in a state of acute hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness in a world that demonstrably lacks that rightness.  We are learning both of a present reality, and a future yet to be realized.

The next three Beatitudes are, by contrast, ‘active’ blessings, what we might call the ‘help’ Beatitudes following the ‘need’ Beatitudes.  These blessings reveal the results of actively seeking to follow God’s teachings, and here we see at least a partial answer to the question: what to do about the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We respond to those needs by being full of mercy, full of purity and full of peace…we respond as Christ has called us, in service and in love.  These too are stated in the future tense, as an end not yet resolved, or a work still in progress.  We love today, not with the expectation that the desert will bloom, but with the faith that our little love today will, in God’s good time be the pivot which transforms the world.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  This blessing mirrors the ultimate goal of the restorative justice movement, which is to restore right relationship after trauma.  That restoration almost always starts with a victim who is willing to be merciful towards the offender, a victim who is willing to say as the axe falls on their neck, ‘forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.’  But the blessing is about more than forgiving, it is about coming to the aid of the needy. Because we who believed have lived God’s great mercy for us, miserable sinners, our call is to pass that mercy along to others.  Often.  Abundantly. Joyously.  This one in particular is a particularly hard one for first world residents, because one of the traps of plenty is beginning to think that we somehow deserve this life because we happened to be born into this time and place.  And if we deserve this life, then those who have worse-off lives must have also deserved those worse-off lives.  This is particularly present in the US evangelical movement in the form we usually refer to as ‘the prosperity gospel’.  Follow God and he will mightily bless you, where ‘bless you’ is code for ‘give you lots of neat stuff’.  That is surprisingly not included in the beatitudes.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  We know by the Law that we can never, of our own effort, maintain purity of heart.  This blessing, like the poor in spirit, reminds us that it is by God’s grace that we achieve purity of heart, through confession of our sins, through the washing of our bodies with Christ’s blood.  In the BCP communion service we pray this before receiving the bread and wine: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, So to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, And to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, And our souls washed through his most precious Blood, And that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Peace here refers to the biblical concept of Shalom, which is far broader than our use of the word peace.  This is not the absence of violence or war, but rather a situation of comprehensive welfare.  Shalom depicts a circle of right relationship, which means communal well-being in all directions.  A bringer of Shalom is a peacemaker, because Shalom brings reconciliation.  This is one of the most challenging things I see in the Gospel, because it is so hard to be a bearer of Shalom, particularly if you are either a person in authority (it’s easier just to give orders); or a person under authority (passive aggressive undercutting of your boss is just so much fun).  This blessing is one where I often look to the example of the Mennonite Central Committee, as they literally live this out around the world by placing their membership at risk to bring Shalom to those who suffer.

Which brings us to the two concluding blessings, those called the ‘hurt’ Beatitudes as both relate to persecution.  We are called to pronounce a different way of interacting with the world, one that rejects hating and to calling others ‘fools’, and if you do this long enough and deliberately enough, there will be push-back from the world for your boldness in stating there is a different way.  When we seek to live our lives in concert with Christ’s example, people will reject us, scoff at us, and mock us.  Note here that we have now encountered the second present-tense Beatitudes.  While we have six future tense promises in the middle, bookended by promises that the poor in spirit, and those persecuted for righteousness sake, will both be in the kingdom of heaven.  The persecution beatitudes come on the heels of the peacemaker blessing, because that is a usual path: a suggestion that a path of peace should be selected, will be rejected by those convinced that it is the wielding of power which will achieve peacemaking.

The Beatitudes offer us fine examples of something I’ve mentioned previously, the tendency of God to offer us dramatic reversals or inversions in things offered to teach us about the kingdom.  The Gospels are littered with these great reversals in strong contrast to a world that seeks superhero endings – in fact, the Beatitudes as a whole are a series of these dramatic reversals.  Jesus begins with ‘blessed are the poor’ while we all know that the world would much rather say, ‘blessed are the rich’.  And following ‘blessed are the meek’ when we all know that the world instead would say, ‘blessed are the powerful’.  This week we’ve seen this clearly, at the world’s treatment of the poor, and the treatment of the rich.  These reversals characterise our faith.  So rather than achieving, say, peace through superior firepower, which we might call a Beatitude of the world, Jesus instead offers the message of the other cheek.  Instead of salvation that arrives at the last moment because evil is finally defeated through mighty power, salvation instead arrives through an instrument of torture and death.  This is why Paul says in Hebrews that Jesus went to the cross for joy, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)  The word we use presently to describe the worst type of pain, excruciating pain, comes to us from the Latin excruciat- ‘tormented,’ from the verb excruciare (based on crux ‘a cross’). So that excruciating, literally, experience becomes the path to salvation for all.  A true reversal, and nowhere is that better reflected than in the contrast between the way of this world, and the way of God as reflected in the cross.  Be attentive to these reversals.

These reversals are key to us, particularly in keeping perspective on what is happening the world around us. When we hear stories of people being led away in handcuffs in airports throughout the US, and when we cry, like the Israelites, How Long, O God? To remember that our God is the great God of reversals.  This is one of the key paradoxes of our faith, that it is observing the worst of humanity, where we see the evidence of God’s greatest blessing.  As executive power is wielded without care for those without power, what we saw this week were hordes of lawyers arriving at airports in order to intervene on behalf of those detained.  This is a small example of a place where blessing comes out of madness.  And it is these reminders which we must always keep before ourselves lest we give in to the despair that grips so many people in this age. “For longing is the veil of satisfaction, and grief the veil of persecution, the coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss.  Oh make us pure of heart and help us see, amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning the promised Comforter, alive and free.”  Amen.


Malcolm Guite, Beatitudes

Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-16

We bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,

And set this lovely lantern on a hill

Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt

By lifting for a little while the veil.

For longing is the veil of satisfaction

And grief the veil of future happiness

We glimpse beneath the veil of persecution

The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss

 

Oh make us pure of heart and help us see

Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning

The promised Comforter, alive and free,

The kingdom coming and the Son returning,

That even in this pre-dawn dark we might

At once reveal and revel in your light.

 

And inspiration drawn from Guite’s sermon here: http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/2001910

 

Also Craig S. Keener’s excellent commentary on Matthew and

Frederick Dale Bruner’s equally excellent commentary on Matthew (thank you SJE!)

I have been immersed in questions of Indigenous identity this week, at the UofA Faculty of Native Studies conference on the Supreme Court decision Daniels.  The conference was video recorded.  https://livestream.com/ualberta/events/6841112

Dedicated to those who suffer the impact of the politics of fear at the hands of all sorts of executive orders:

“September 77, Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual,
In police room 619…

You can blow out a candle,
But you can’t blow out a fire,
Once the flame begins to catch
The wind will blow it higher.

And the eyes of the world are watching now.”
– Peter Gabriel

Here’s to being that wind in the world.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Biko

 

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Written by sameo416

January 28, 2017 at 11:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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