Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
38"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If you’re going to walk the extra mile, you should at least know how far you’re expected to walk.

People of a certain age can tell you that a mile is 5,280 feet. I’m trying to be polite, but if you know this, you are dating yourself. You might want to look into the new system, let’s call it ‘distance for dummies’ where a kilometre is 1,000 metres.

But the Bible is clear when it says ‘walk the extra mile too’ and so I’m back to my original question. Is it the Roman mile, at a mere 4,851 feet? Or the Scottish mile (5,928’), about the distance from the castle to the Queen’s palace at the bottom of the hill? Perhaps a nautical mile, longer at 6,080’ and more likely to require swimming? Whatever you do, don’t volunteer for the Russian mile, which comes just over 24,000 feet. Everything is bigger in Russia.

Purists, of course will demand we put the Bible in the right historical context, and that would take us back to the Roman mile. Mile is variation on the Roman word for a thousand, which is the number of paces a marching Roman army would cover in traveling one mile. But even this was variable, with weather, terrain and fatigue all having an impact on the length of a mile.

I think my new favourite is the so-called ‘metric mile,’ or 1,500 metres, mentioned more than once at Sochi and a popular distance for those who have a foot in both camps. At 4,921 feet, it’s only slightly more than the Roman mile and less than the regular mile, and so maybe a good choice for walking the extra mile.

The extra mile, of course, is only one of several verses that scholar’s call the ‘hard sayings of Jesus.’ Turn the other cheek, surrender your cloak, go the extra mile, love your enemies—all these sayings describe something that is difficult for most of us. They all require us to approach perfection, which is where Jesus ends the passage: ‘Be perfect, just as God is perfect.’

Now, perfection is a tricky topic when it comes to a life of faith, since our entire religion is based on the assumption that we are redeemed sinners. Perfection might be a good goal, but it’s entirely unrealistic. And even if we could achieve it, our own history tells us that perfection leads to a sense of supremacy, which is—of course—sinful.

This hasn’t stopped the church from trying at various moments in our history. Just now we are sitting in a former Methodist church, and the Methodists were among the most famous to fall into this trap. The name itself came from the Wesley brother’s methodical approach to personal conduct, and the abiding belief that perfection is possible.

The Methodists embraced Christian perfection (they preferred the term ‘sanctification’) and made it the goal of faith. Early meeting books listed the names of members and included a code (the letter ‘S’) to indicate the precious few considered ‘sanctified’ or particularly holy. But even the sanctified could be tempted to sin, and would therefore need to seek forgiveness.

In other words, the idea of sanctification doesn’t really work. We all need goals, and some do a better job achieving them than others, but at the end of the day, only God is perfect. Again, you might approach perfection, but the moment you begin to like yourself for it, your perfection melts away.

Of course, the world out there has an equally confused approach to perfection. At Sochi, we marvel at perfect and nearly perfect performances, and have come to expect it from these young people. Some, like Patrick Chan, have gone so far as apologizing for his seeming lack of perfection, achieving silver rather than the gold we covet.

At the same time, we tell kids that they are great even when they’re not, we’re told not to correct obvious mistakes for the sake of their fragile sense-of-self, and we won’t let them compete for fear that some may lose. They we put them in front of the television and say ‘you could be the next Hayley Wickenheiser or the next Clara Hughes.’

And this moral confusion isn’t limited to kids. The world will tell you to have a perfect home and perfect children and the perfect job and then tell you to expect less and plan for the worst because we live in uncertain times and you can’t depend on anyone but yourself. Every message is a mixed message: you can’t buy happiness but you can get everything you want with just three easy payments. But only if you act now.

In many ways, we could sum up everything Jesus is saying in this passage with the words ‘do the thing least expected.’ In an imperfect world, seek something approaching perfection. In war, seek peace. When compelled to help, help more. When someone is obviously your enemy, learn to love them, even if you don’t like them at all. And walk the extra mile.

This last one is curious, because it seems to continue the idea of turning the other cheek. The last thing we are likely to do when someone strikes us is say, ‘here, hit me again.’ Likewise, if compelled by some seasoned soldier to carry his pack for a mile, the last thing we’re going to say is, ‘that’s it? I was just starting to get into it.’ But when we do the least expected thing (as Jesus expects), we will start to do all sorts of crazy things like lend without thought of return and love the ones we are least likely to love.

Always with these kinds of things, I like to look for hidden meaning. As the inventor of the Dan Brown school of preaching, I wonder if there is some code I’m missing or some logical leap I might make as an aid to understanding. So here goes.

I did a bit of research on the term ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’ and I came up largely blank. There is no agreement on the source of this idiom, or even the intent of the saying. Some use it to defeat judgement (‘Don’t judge someone until...’) and others argue it is about empathy and having a common experience. It’s a mystery, to quote Harold.

But what if it’s simply a variation on ‘walking the extra mile’ found here in Matthew 5? Suddenly the idea of a common experience takes on new life, with the second mile a double dose of understanding the way of the one you walk with. And maybe the pack you are compelled to carry is not a bag of Roman laundry but the emotional burden the other person carries? In other words, you carry it and offer some momentary relief, not a quick fix or easy answers, but a willingness to share the burden, if for a few moments at least.

So we are back to Jesus command to ‘do the thing least expected.‘ We are surrounded by voices that say ‘put yourself first’ and ‘the only person you can count on is you.’ But Jesus says ‘walk the extra mile’ to truly understand each other, to support one another, and to truly share the load.

One of the most pernicious ideas to enter our world is the idea that we somehow attract success or failure, depending, of course, on the quality of our thinking. Maybe we were forced to walk the extra mile because we were sitting by the roadside thinking like a victim rather than a strong person who can stand up to Rome’s finest.

The problem with the so-called ‘law of attraction’ is that there is no room for empathy, only evaluation. When everyone is the author of their own situation, the natural tendency is to figure it out for them, and inform them of the result, as a favour, since they ought to know how they did it to themselves.

But Jesus says ‘walk a mile with them, and then walk an extra mile,’ and then decide if you can understand their burden. At that point, we usually can, since their experience is a little closer to being our experience, and for a little while at least, we faced it together. Amen.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Take one measure of Russian Olympics, add a dash of St. Valentine’s Day, and spend too much time sitting in darkened theaters and what do you get? Doctor Zhivago.

Doctor Zhivago, for those who haven’t seen it, is an older film (released the year of my birth) set it in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and it’s aftermath. It’s a love story (of a sort) that is largely fueled by an insidious earworm called “Lara’s Theme.” The film is an eye-popping 197 minutes long and—I would argue—will teach you nothing about love.

Yes, Julie Christie is lovely, and Omar Sharif impossibly handsome, and David Lean does a fine job recreating the vast Russian backdrop, but the love story is weak and morally ambiguous. You can watch it if you want, but you’ve never get those three hours and 17 minutes back.

So now that I’ve convinced you to skip the film and stick with Ron Maclean and 24-hour coverage of our Olympic heroes, I need to convince you that St. Valentine’s Day is a legitimate theme for worship. And maybe the best place to start is the saint himself.

But before I say more about our saint de jour, I want to recount a conversation I had with my mother the time she bought a used car:

Me: What’s that on the dash?
Mother: That’s Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.
Me: When did you become Roman Catholic?
Mother: I’m not, but I couldn’t very well take it off.
Me: Why not?
Mother: Well, that would be bad luck, wouldn’t it?
Me: You know he’s been delisted?
Mother: What do you mean?
Me: Delisted, taken off the list of actual saints. So since he’s not real, you can take him off the dash.
Mother: No way, that would still be bad luck.

Now, St. Valentine was never delisted, like poor old St. Christopher, but he is on the list of saints for whom virtually nothing is known. Yes, there was a Valentine martyred in Rome on February 14th sometime in the third century. But beyond that, everything else is legend. And there is the small problem of multiple Valentines on the Roman list, as many as fourteen, half of whom seem to have been martyred on the 14th.

So by the time the High Middle Ages arrive, a number of legends develop around St. Valentine: restoring sight to the blind, secretly marrying Christians to save young men from being conscripted, and so on. Chaucer and others go a step further and suggest he is the saint of romantic love, and the whole thing takes in a life of it’s own. Looking at all the panicked faces in the Hallmark store on Thursday night, I wonder if some secretly hope Chaucer had kept the whole idea to himself.

“But Michael,” you are no doubt saying to yourself, “we should celebrate romantic love: it is one of the four basic types of love that help us understand the love between us and God.” It seems you have a lot to say on the topic. And what you say is true. C.S. Lewis describes the ‘four loves’ in a book of the same name, and romantic love is firmly on the list.

But first the others: Lewis begins with affection, the type of love we most commonly feel in our families, where affection is extended based on a lasting bond, and adept at ignoring faults in favour this, the first type of love that most of us experience.

The second is friendship, the deep bond between those who are not related or romantically involved. Lewis argues that friendship was appreciated by the ancients to a greater degree, perhaps because friendship happens beyond the ties of clan or tribe. It isn’t natural in the sense that it happens outside self-interest, and as a result has a unique purity.

Romantic love (eros) is next, the deep love we can feel for another, and the pleasure this can bring. Of course Lewis makes this the most qualified type of love, citing all the dangers from lust to obsession to idolatry, but it remains, for us, an key experience of love.

The last is charity (agape) often called unconditional love, or loving kindness, the kind of love that God extends to us, and we are called to extend to others. This is the love of John 3.16 (“For God so loved the world...”) and Jesus‘ command to love our enemies. It is the love Paul labels the ‘greatest’ in his tribute to love (1 Cor 13) and is even the name of God according to the author of 1 John, who said “God is love” (1 John 4.8).

And this, of course, takes us to the passage that Taye read this morning, the invitation to choose a life of love:

Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

All the loves are distilled to the love of God, the love that heard the suffering of the Israelites, the love that liberated the people from bondage, the love that maintained the wanderers in the desert, the love that forgave nearly continuous disobedience, and the love that took God’s people to the very edge of the promised land and invited them to enter in.

But, and it’s a big one, the people would need to choose life. They would need to listen for God and obey God’s command, they would need to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien, they would need to keep God at the centre of their life together and they would need to instruct their children about God and God’s ways. All of these things together meant they had chosen life—the same ‘abundant life’ (John 10) that Jesus would commend to his friends.

So what about a life without love, what happens then? Well, God is pretty specific about that too:

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

The implication, and it’s borne out by all the smoting that seems to follow the Israelites wherever they go at this point in the story, is that God will punish the people for their disobedience. But even if you can’t accept this—and you don’t have to—then at the very least we can conclude that the logical outcome of seeking idols, failing to help the vulnerable, and serving yourself alone is a life without God, a life without agape, charity, loving kindness. And it wouldn’t be much of a life. Think self-destruction rather than divine retribution.

Now, I feel I was a little hard on David Lean a few minutes ago, one of the greatest directors of the last century, who also gave us The Bridge on the River Kwai and perhaps the greatest film of all time, Lawrence of Arabia. It’s the other Omar Sharif film, the one that made him famous, and also the film that confirmed Peter O’Toole as the finest actor of his generation.

It’s a film about love: love for a people and a way of life not understood by colonial masters, love for the unlikely people we meet along life’s path, love that risks death in seeking the lost, and the anguished love expressed in loss as the sand claims a friend. It is the love between Lawrence and Sherif Ali, played by O’Toole and Omar Sharif, that provides perhaps most moving portrayal of friendship every captured on film.

I feel like we have come full circle, but I can go one better: The 1960 Olympics, hosted by the City of Rome, happened in a simpler time when the organizers knew that the athletes not only needed their own village to gather and enjoy new friends, but also a chapel for contemplation and prayer. And so they build a new church, in the centre of the athletes village, and dedicated it to St. Valentine.

May God bless our love, and may the words ‘faster—higher—stronger’ define our love, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

If you like salt, your taste is for saltiness.
If you like sugar, your taste is for sweetness.
If you like lemon, your taste is for sourness.
If you like beer, your taste is for bitterness.
If you like soy sauce, your taste is for umami.

That’s your new word of the week, umami, unless you speak Japanese, then you can simply say ‘I knew that.’ It seems we ‘discovered’ this fifth taste some time in last few years, and now it is firmly on the list of what constitutes our sense of taste.

Umami also has the distinction of being initially virtuous and often bad. The first taste of umami most people get is through breast milk, and that’s a good thing. One of the most common ways we adults get it is through MSG, and that is not-so-good. And your taste for umami will often come with a heavy dose of salt, like a nice rich broth, and that’s a mixed blessing too.

Dr. Jim is nodding just now, and has likely told some of you to cut back on the salt. That cup of tomato juice—that’s half the salt you’re supposed to have in a day. And that can of soup you were planning for lunch? Back away from the can opener. Drop it, drop it!

But Jesus said we’re the salt of the earth. That’s a good thing, right? If you look up common phrases in English you will find that ‘salt of the earth’ means a person of great worth, in the same way that salt was highly prized in the time of Jesus. ‘Worth your salt’ began is a way to describe a good Roman soldier, sometimes paid in salt, and also the origin of the word salary.

So ‘salt of the earth’ is a scarcity metaphor, meaning that something as precious as salt is a good way to describe the best kind of people. And we’re salt of the earth, unless of course, we lose our saltiness.

Now you scientific types might chime in at this point and say ‘yes, but salt is just sodium chloride, and sodium chloride is a very stable compound, so how is this possible? And we could simply say ‘well, Jesus was no scientist—the son of God—but obviously not a scientist.

But wait! Salt in Jesus’ day was a crude form of salt, often from salt marshes or impure rock salt, and if a little condensation happened, the sodium chloride might dissolve. In other words, the salt might lose it’s saltiness.

So now that we have established that the loss of saltiness is verifiable in fact, what about in metaphor? What did Jesus mean when he said ‘lose its saltiness’? If ‘salt of the earth’ means person of great worth, then ‘losing our saltiness’ could be as simple as becoming bad people or doing something bad. And that certainly explain the result of this loss: “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

But that seems too simple, a perhaps too ‘judgey’ for the Jesus we know and love. No, I think the secret to understanding stale salt can be found in the next couple of verses: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

In other words, we have been given something—salt and light—and these precious things must be safeguarded. Salt must be preserved, much in the same way it will preserve other things, and light must be shared, never hidden, or diminished in any way. Maintain what’s good and share it—it may be as simple as that.

Of course, what follows is the ‘so what?’ These are fine words, be salt and light, preserve and share, but what do they have to say to today: to Central, to the United Church, to the Christian church, to the world out there? What practical application can we make using these words beyond ‘keep on being good’ and ‘stop being so humble’?

I’m sure I’ve mentioned that I belong to a Facebook group called the “Below Average Ministers,” meaning ministers under the average age of 57 for our denomination, not intellectual ability. It is a fine group for mutual support and sharing ideas, gentle challenge and seeking feedback on some matter. We also like to discuss breaking news in churchland.

On Tuesday, the national church released the initial report on the Comprehensive Review, an effort to quiz every congregation across the country on the future of the church. Your Church Council Executive was interviewed in the fall, one of 600 that added their voice.

As expected, the direction that emerged from all these interviews was ‘give us less red tape’ and ‘give us more autonomy.’ Safeguard the identity of the United Church as welcoming and open, and give us the kind of support we need and skip the stuff we don’t need. Piece of cake.

On Thursday, the same group rolled out a suggested format for the church that might provide the things we learned on Tuesday. The Below Average Ministers were not impressed. The new church would eliminate most of the church structure we now have, more-or-less leaving congregations and a national office. Even those most open to change were more than a little taken aback.

Now, all of this is just a suggestion, a trial balloon very likely to pop when presbytery and conference get their hands on it. And for those who reside in the soft and comfortable pews here at Central there may be little change—even with massive restructuring—there may seem to be little change.

Part of effort, I think, is to find the salt. Where is the vitality of the church, where is the worth as in ‘worth your salt’? And for Central at least, the salt is found in the work of a busy congregation. (So this is the lampstand part of the sermon, where I tell you how good you are and you try to keep your heads. Pride is a deadly sin, so feel good after I’m done, but not too good.)

Over a dozen people are employed on this street corner, in three organizations dedicated to an end to poverty and well-being of people in Weston-Mount Dennis. Countless people volunteer time and money to the effort, captured by the vision of the world made new through the compassion and mercy of God as revealed in Jesus.

Somehow the wisdom has emerged that healthy congregations with a vital sense of mission are the salt of the earth. Having a regional body, or having a super-regional body, or even having an effective national office isn’t really saltiness. These things wax and wane, but the strength and the salt of the church is found right here, at the local level.

I like to tell colleagues that we here at Central are on our fifth denomination since 1821, and it would seem highly unlikely that the United Church of Canada is the last one.

First, they look at me like I’ve just committed treason. Then they ask for the list (M.E.U.S.A., M.E. Can., W.M., M.C.C. and U.C.C.) and then there seems to be a moment of recognition. Denominations are just vehicles for congregations to come together to express a common sense of purpose. When the sense of purpose changes or evolves, something new emerges. When salt loses it’s saltiness, it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. At least that’s what Jesus said about these things.

May God continue to bless us and allow us to be salt. May we never lose saltiness, but remain committed to the God’s mission in this place. Amen.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
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.

My goal this morning is to preach without mentioning Groundhog Day, the Superbowl or Rob Ford. There, I’ve already failed.

What is it about humans, that we so given to rituals and personalities? It’s just a big rodent, people. And according to Wikipedia, groundhogs only live about six years, so I’m having some trouble believing in the Wiarton Willie of my childhood, bringing Canadian content to all the people who long for a quick end to winter.

And I understand there is a football game tonight. Apparently, it seems rational to some that the Boeing Corporation flew a 747 over half of Washington State this week in the pattern of a giant “12.” Of course I need these things explained to me, so thank goodness for the internet. Ask me (or Dave presumably) over Mac ‘n Cheese.

The best idea for a sermon this week came from my dear friend the Jimmy, who suggested as a homage to Groundhog Day (the movie) that about midway through the sermon I just start it again from the beginning and see if anyone notices. So now you have to listen, and stop trying to figure out the number 12 thing.

So we focus instead on the number eight, the number of Beatitudes in Matthew 5, and take comfort knowing that the meek will inherit the earth, which likely has no bearing on the outcome of the big game. And while someone in the locker room tonight will likely thank Jesus, I know for certain that all the teaching around poverty of spirit, persecution and the need for comfort are directed at Leaf fans.

So we begin at the beginning. Matthew, unlike the other Gospels, feels the need to give us the 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. He presents a short birth narrative, including the flight into Egypt, then the baptism of Jesus, a time of testing, the call of the disciples and his first healing, all in four chapters.

By chapter five it is time for some teaching, and we get perhaps the most famous sermon in history, the Sermon of the Mount. It will continue for three full chapters and include his best known lessons, including the Lord’s Prayer itself. What Bob read today, called the Beatitudes, is merely the introduction to an entire worldview made manifest through the Sermon of the Mount.

“Beatitudes” comes from the Latin beginning of each clause, using “happy” or “fortunate” or “blessed” to describe the subjects of the passage. And each saying is complete, creating a new way of thinking about each of the peoples listed, and a new way of imagining our world. But that would be jumping ahead.

If we begin at the beginning, we need to think about the way Jesus met the world: always at the intersection between his experience of everyday life and the Bible. When Jesus says “love your neighbour” he is quoting Leviticus and reflecting on our general failure to acknowledge our neighbours or learn to love them. He takes experience and brings it to the Bible.

And so, in the most general terms, experience for Jesus meant the life he witnessed each day, life under Rome, in a bit of a backwater, with all the things that came with it: poverty, grief, cruelty, war, and the kinds of compromises that make righteousness difficult. You could even argue that verse six (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”) is a summary of the entire passage, with righteousness being the goal of a life of faith.

In other words, the people want to be righteous, but they live in difficult times. And Jesus goal, speaking to our hearts in the context of the Bible, leads inevitably to the Psalms. Jesus cited them, sang them with his disciples, and even quoted one from the cross, and so we understand that the key to this passage likely lies somewhere in the Psalms. So we begin with Psalm 37:

Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy peace and prosperity.

There are some, of course, who reject the Psalms, as too much ‘good versus evil’ and too simplistic in promising that the wicked will suffer and the good prosper. But I think we read them in the same manner that Jesus read them, as a challenge, as a source of hope, and perhaps even as a manifesto.

And reading them as a manifesto, it follows then the poor, the grief-stricken, the meek, the justice-seekers, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and the persecuted would all find solace somewhere in the Psalms. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” becomes “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

So that’s a lot of Bible, so maybe we should go back to context. And for that, I want to look at the meek. Who were the meek? We might look no further than slaves in the Roman world, the most obvious group in any effort to identify the meek.

Now slavery was not unique to Rome. Every society practiced it, and some took it to extremes. Some historians have estimated that for every free Spartan there were seven slaves. So while there were millions of slaves in the Roman empire, they still only made up 10 to 15 percent of the overall population.

And their lives were remarkably varied. Most, of course were rural and agrarian, doing the hardest labour under the worst possible conditions. But some, particularly those in towns serving the wealthy, lived in comfort. Some even held property, and a some accumulated enough wealth to buy their freedom.

Most however were treated as the law described them, as property, even going so far as describing the act of escape as theft, denying the owner his property. And they were bought and sold, most famously when Julius Caesar sold an entire region of Gaul, 58,000 slaves, in a single transaction.

It is important to note that Jesus does not directly condemn slavery. He was human enough, I suppose, to see that such subjugation would never end, as indeed it persists in our world today. But he laid the groundwork for a new approach to the meek, and by extension to slaves generally, when he insisted that they would someday inherit the earth.

Indeed, as this new religion of redemption and new life begins to get a foothold, it is commonly noted that slaves and freed staves are among the earliest members. Tradition tells us that among the first Bishops of Rome, three were former slaves.

And this made no sense to the Roman overlords. You could be kind to your slave, you might let a learned slave teach your children, but you would never share a religious ritual with your slave. But in the Christian church, around the communion table, everyone was equal: male-female, Jew-Greek, slave-free: one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3.28).

The beatitudes remain compelling, of course, because their promise remains unfulfilled. We embrace them, and recite them, and hold them up precisely because they remain a fond hope for this and every time. We seek the righteousness that will free people from hunger, persecution, and discord; and we know that the merciful and the pure of heart belong first to God. May we long for this vision, where a weary world and the Psalms meet, and meek inherit the world. Amen.