Sunday, January 29, 2017

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.

He won so many honours in his lifetime that Wikipedia has a separate (and lengthy) page to record them. Beginning with a state funeral in St. Paul’s (usually reserved for royals) and including the offer of a dukedom, numerous orders and medals from his native UK and countries around the world, and even the Nobel Prize for Literature, you’d think that Sir Winston Churchill would have shown great promise as a child.

Well, here is a quote from his fifth grade report card:

General conduct is "very bad—is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or another. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere."

I’d say that’s a good thing, considering everything he would do later on. Still, it wasn’t a very promising start.

Focusing on just one of those honours, the Nobel Prize—he received it for his many books but also his speeches. And one in particular stands out, and comes with an interesting backstory. You know it:

"We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Historians and linguists have studied these words and concluded that he intentionally chose simple “stirring words”[1] that were all Anglo-Saxon in origin except one—a French word—surrender.

This was not meant as a slight to our French allies, just an important bit of contrast, the strong and nearly primeval Old English words that describe what we’ll do and the lone foreign word that describes what we won’t do. It’s a remarkable bit of oratory, and the exact opposite of our passage today:

Blessed are the poor in spirit...
Blessed are those who mourn...
Blessed are the meek...
Blessed are the merciful...
Blessed are the pure in heart...
Blessed are the peacemakers...
Blessed are those who are persecuted...

I make this observation not to discredit one speech and lift up another, but to highlight that the same rhetorical strategy is at work in both: developing a theme and presenting to in a way that is consistent with that theme.
Want to motivate people to strength? Name the fight in every location familiar to us, places named since before our collective memory began. What to motivate people to weakness? Name every movement and collection of people that we associate with weakness.

And Jesus does. He develops his ‘manifesto of weakness’ and names those ‘blessed of God’—those who have a special place in the Kingdom. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but before I do we need to single out part of the passage for special note. The last verses that Jenny shared we appended to this passage because in Matthew’s mind it was a perfect fit:

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.

This will some day be true, but not yet. Matthew is describing the early church around the time he is writing, maybe 60 or 70 of the Common Era. Early Jesus followers were being insulted and persecuted like the prophets before them, but not at the moment Jesus was speaking on the mount.

The other clue is that in the first part of the passage everyone listed as blessed is doing something (mourning, being meek, or merciful) and everyone in the latter part of the passage is having something done to them—being insulted, persecuted, and so on. So we’ll set these words aside for a time—at least until after Easter—and focus on this ‘manifesto of weakness’ instead.

John Dominic Crossan, a theologian who never minces words, famously called Jesus’ first followers a ‘kingdom of nuisances and nobodies.’ He (correctly) points out that the movement begins among the least powerful in Roman society: slaves, ex-slaves, women, and those who aspired to become a better sort of peasant—a goal that was harder to achieve than we might imagine.

In fact, Jesus might have saved some time if he began and ended with just one clause in his manifesto: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” It’s blessing and hope, blessing and the promise of what’s to come—not some heavenly reward—but the sincere conviction the meek will some day displace the powerful. But that’s jumping ahead.

First, we need to study the crowd and see who’s there. Yes, there is Dom Crossan’s crew, the least and the last of the Near-East. But there was also the poor in spirit, those who were hungering for meaning beyond the letter of the law. There were those in mourning—always so many in mourning—when life was truly nasty, brutish and short.

And, of course, there was those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This one’s interesting, since we hear these words and think activists, those who seek justice for others. There may have been a handful in the crowd that day, but the majority who hungered and thirsted were seeking it for themselves—relief from an over-zealous tax collector or a bad neighbour, or anyone who stepped over others to save themselves. In survival mode, this could mean almost anyone. You could almost reorder them and put those persecuted here—again, this could mean almost anyone.

Continuing on with the idea that these blessed were actively doing something, we get three groups that are weak for others: the merciful, the pure at heart, and the peacemakers. There are busy tending to others, setting aside part of their field for the gleaners, settling disputes between neighbours. Their version of weakness means living for others before themselves, when the easiest (and safest) course is to not get involved. They court danger while they receive their blessing.

Why is this still relevant today? Why celebrate weakness when it’s so much easier to celebrate things like Churchillian strength? Ironically, Churchill’s call was more to sacrifice than strength. He was urging people to fight and defend what mattered most—homes, families and a way of life. So not actually that far removed from Jesus’ call to weakness.

It is relevant today because we have reentered a time when some preach a gospel of strength, where compromise and negotiation are dirty words, where winning and overcoming others is more important that helping everyone succeed. We are entering a world where nation-states are being called to compete rather than cooperate to further the human project. It tries to hide behind the strength of a Churchill or a Reagan, but it’s really about a diminished psyche and a lack of any real compassion.


Another towering figure of the last century, Mahatma Gandhi, was once asked what he thought of Western Civilization and he famously answered “I think it would be a good idea.” On another occasion he was set to meet the king at Buckingham Palace and Winston Churchill made it known that he was uneasy about Gandhi appearing in only his homespun loincloth. Later he was asked if he thought his attire was proper, Gandhi said “the king had enough [clothing on] for both of us.”

When writer Louis Fischer visited Gandhi's ashram in 1942, he noticed a picture of Jesus on the wall—the only wall decoration around—with the caption, "He is our peace."
"But you are not a Christian," he said to Gandhi.
"I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew," Gandhi answered.
"Then you are a better Christian than most Christians," Fischer thought to himself. [2]

He was a scholar of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scriptures, but he also mediated on the Sermon on the Mount. “Christ’s Sermon on the Mount fills me with bliss even today” he said. “Its sweet verses have even today the power to quench my agony of soul.”

Today we need to return to this message of strength through weakness, of compassion and non-violence through attention to the least and the last. We need to apply its promise to whatever agony of soul we feel, and trust that indeed, the meek will inherit the earth. Amen.

[1]Robert Lacey, "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium."


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