Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
He said:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When my son was eleven, he wanted to be the ruler of his own island nation. Where do kids get these ideas? And through the miracle of Google he was able to do quite a bit of research on issues such as unilateral declarations and international recognition. Maybe I bought him a book on the topic. The sad reality, however, is that there are few islands available for nation-building and so Isaac’s dream went unrealized.

Next, he wanted a foreign passport. Surely there are nations with relaxed rules around who can get a passport, and the lad was determined to find out. Mozambique, it turns out, will basically sell you a passport, and I had to break it to him that I wasn’t sending a cashier’s cheque to any consulates so he could have a foreign passport.

In the course of helping him develop this false hope, I discovered that there is an entire sub-culture dedicated to reinventing yourself. Forget the passport, what about buying a manor that includes the titles Lord and Lady? Maybe a Swiss-numbered account? It turns out there is even a Princess from some minor noble family that will meet you in Vegas and transform you (for a hefty fee) into a prince. I didn’t tell my son.

I share all this with you because it occurred to me this week that buying your own island nation or becoming a prince is really no different that expecting to be a military dictator or president-for life. What we are witnessing in Tunisia and Eqypt and perhaps other places is the ultimate reality-check, where ordinary people wake-up to realize that there are other ways to be governed.

And if there was ever an occasion where we could point to the television and point to our Bibles, this is it:

5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

The outcome of events in Egypt is uncertain, of course, and we pray for a peaceful resolution. When world events unfold we often feel helpless or uncertain, and it has the effect of testing some of our core assumptions. Governments around the world have valued stability over individual freedom, and we are left to decide. What criteria do we use?

Now that we’ve reached the end of the first month of the new year, you no doubt have your tree down and all those decorations put away. It is helpful, I think, to remember where we are in the year. A month ago, the holy family was on the run from Herod. Three weeks ago, Jesus was baptized. Two weeks ago, Jesus picked his first batch of disciples, and last week he found the rest.

These are early days, and that becomes the context where we read the Beatitudes. The disciples have settled in to listen: there is a pause in the initial rush of preaching and healing, and Jesus has something to tell them.

The first thing to notice is that this is not a list of instructions. There will be some concrete direction given toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel, but for today it is only teaching. And even the idea of teaching doesn’t seem to fit the Beatitudes. They are more like a manifesto.

Curious word, manifesto. It is one of the few words we borrowed from Italian, and it simply means “clear.” You share a manifesto when you want to make things perfectly clear. In Canada, we tend to use the word “platform” when we’re discussing the political realm, where the Europeans still seem to prefer manifesto.

So Jesus wants to make these things clear. He wants to define to beginning of his ministry, and for Matthew it begins with an introductory section that will unfold into what we call the Sermon on the Mount. So why begin here? And why begin with the “poor in Spirit?” We’ve only reached the first sentence and already we’re into a debate. Luke says simply “blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” So why the poor in spirit?

The best and most plausible answer is that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian audience that would have resonated more with the idea of spiritual poverty and the new spirit that Jesus brings. What Jesus actually said remains unknown, and is a source of perpetual debate. I wonder if the answer may be “Jesus says what we need to hear at the moment we tune in to listen,” but some will find this unhelpful.

Then he continues: those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted are all blessed. Each will be rewarded in a unique way, and each is a particular object of God’s concern.

Before I go on, I want to go back to Egypt for a moment. Not back to the unrest but farther back in time, to the time of Pharaoh and the time of Moses. Imagine all you know about the conditions under Pharaoh, even picture Yul Brenner and Charleton Heston if you have to, and listen again to the list that Jesus made: Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

I’m going to suggest that if we want a window in what God is thinking about, if we want a window on the things that Jesus pondered as he prepared for the beginning of his ministry, we should collapse our sense of time. In God’s time, the suffering of the people under Pharaoh, and the suffering of the people under Caesar, and the suffering of the people under any garden-variety dictator we can serve up is the same suffering. There are no grades of suffering based on historical timeframe, only the same response to suffering based on the words Jesus shared.

But there is another element here that I want to test out, and that is the ordinary Egyptians who are left behind. I’m still with Pharaoh and Moses here, and I want you to think back to the story of the Exodus. Notice that we only meet Pharaoh and his kin, an evil overseer or two, and God’s people set to be liberated. We don’t actually get to meet any ordinary Egyptians.

But we know that the structure of the ancient world was a tiny elite and everyone else living in poverty ranging from dire to worse. And so it follows that while the Hebrew people where led through the Red Sea to safety, the countless poor under Pharaoh remained behind. And if we picture them, and in particular the ones who were forced to pick up the work that was no longer being done by slaves, we can imagine that among them we would find the poor, the meek, the persecuted, and the rest.

Nowhere on the list does it say “Blessed are the poor among the Hebrews” or “Blessed are the poor among the Christians” or even “Blessed are the poor among the deserving poor.” It is just a blessing, extended by a God that doesn’t see the categories of humans we see, only the humans themselves.

And what about the rewards? Jesus said, in this order: They will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will be shown mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The first thing we notice is that they are in the future tense, that the rewards will come in time, that they are in the realm of things hoped for and not yet received. And so it is with life on earth. Watching the news this week I was struck by the voices that said “we have been hoping for this day for 30 years.” Even when the hoped for reality has not come to pass, there is still gratitude and the recognition that even the act of protest is a realized dream.

And so we wait. We wait for the Kingdom to come, for the hungry to be filled and the meek to inherit the world. We wait both the poor and the spiritually poor to gain the Kingdom. We wait knowing that the blessing of God begins with those in need and extends far into the future. We wait for God. Amen and amen.


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