Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Saints

Matthew 5
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.

The election signs are gone (for now) and we can all breath a sign of relief. Not everyone is pleased with the various outcomes, but I think I speak for most when I say ‘I’m just glad it’s over.’

So forgive me for taking you back momentarily, but I’ve been thinking about those signs and some of the messages shared. First off, colour. Of course there are no formal party lines drawn in a municipal election, but the proliferation of red, blue and orange signs seem to be saying some thing.

Next is the anti-message, or the reverse message that lights up your sub-conscious. One of our local candidates added the tag-line “I will listen.” And I’m thinking “Oh, I get it, that other guy doesn’t listen.” Clever. Or a certain ubiquitous set of signs with the logo “Respect for Taxpayers.” What are they suggesting?

Last thing is the surname, in BOLD letters, which may stick in your mind and reappear in your around the time you mark your ballot. The incumbents advantage is name-recognition, making it no accident that in the last nine US elections, a Bush or a Clinton has appeared on the ballot seven times.

So you need a colour, a tagline and a well-known name. And failing that, I’m told the latest thing is a professional statement of some sort. Back in my day you could get away with a diploma and a bit of experience, but now you need to go through a personal branding exercise, with a well-crafted single-paragraph manifesto to back it up. Even my poor son got caught in this, when a gallery owner said “your paintings are great Isaac, but you really need to work on your artist’s statement.” Here, and I thought the point of art school was learning to paint.

So this seems new, the personal statement, but it may not be so new after all. For if the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus platform, and the Beatitudes his manifesto, then surely his personal statement can be found in the previous chapter:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (4.17b)

So clear away all the foundational material at the beginning of Matthew and look for the real beginning of the story, and you find this: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” He calls the disciples, he heals a few people, and then he begins to teach.

The lesson that begins with the Beatitudes is more comprehensive that we generally note, since we tend to take it in smaller, bite-sized pieces. But if you simply take the topics covered in the Sermon of the Mount, it becomes quite a list:

Salt and Light
The Fulfillment of the Law
Murder, Adultery, Divorce, Oaths
Seeking Revenge
Love for Enemies
Giving to the Needy
Prayer, Fasting, Treasures, Worry
And a final chapter (7) that’s too long to summarize.

And all of this, introduced and defined by a personal statement: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Now, I don’t generally engage in word studies, but it is instructive that different translations take a different approach to that final idea: some say the kingdom is ‘at hand,’ some say it is ‘near to you,’ and some go with the old school ‘the kingdom of heaven is nigh.’ Like that sign that says ‘the end is nigh,’ which would be brilliant if people knew what nigh is.

So how is the kingdom of heaven at hand if so much of Jesus’ manifesto in the future tense? ‘Will be comforted; will inherit the earth; will be filled; will be shown mercy’—all of these fit our definition of future hope, the time we long for and one day hope to see.

But that’s the thing about putting out a manifesto: someone may actually try to live it out. When Jesus said “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” he was using the future tense, describing the his unique vision for human living, but his followers took it a step further. They took to heart his personal statement that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and began to live the beatitudes straight away.

And that brings us down to today. When you look at the list and imagine each is a task or a job description, you can see the ways in which we still try to live this out. The poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, seekers of righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.

And you can further take the list and begin to see how these descriptors are profoundly counter-cultural, then as now. Half, it would seem, are the vulnerable, the mourners, the meek, the poor in spirit and the persecuted. Then as now there is little reward in weakness—when the world continues to put a high value on strength and success.

Even suggesting that these vulnerable ones had a unique place in God’s care was to seek to overturn centuries of religious wisdom. May our love affair with the psalms continue, but too often they perpetuate the myth that success indicates righteousness and failure points to failure. But Jesus says what seems like failure may be blessing, by the God that stands with the unfortunate, the lost and the broken.

And the other half of the list, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and those who seek after righteousness, these children of God are the people who are busy caring for the ones on the first half of the list. In effect, it’s the church: a mix of caregivers and those needing care, the needy and their champions, the oppressed and the ones sent to defend them.

And underneath it all, a foundational truth within the church: our position is never fixed. We constantly switch back and forth between care-giving and needing care, serving the needy and having great need, defending the meek and discovering our own unique meekness in the moments we are most truthful with ourselves.

And this is the kingdom that is always at hand: the love of God is even near, whether we receive it or make it known, whether we tell the story or pause to listen once more.

And this, I think, brings us back to the long and varied list of churches that brought us to this place. It underlines at least two things: the first being the many shoulders we stand on as we continue this ministry of caring for the world and caring for each other. It took numerous generations of believers to bring us to this moment—nurturing us as we now nurture future generations.

And the final point: Congregations and denominations change, but the constant is the abiding belief that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we need to lend our hand to make it known. A church is never more than a vehicle for the kingdom, an ever-changing place with a never-changing mission: to love God and make God’s love obvious to all we meet. Amen.


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