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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Turning the World Upside-Down

Our readings today are both very familiar ones. The passage from Micah, reminding us that nothing we can do can take away our sin, but that God has told us
“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?”

Micah of Moresheth, incidentally,was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, particularly because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Ain’t gonna happen!” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds!” Israel, back then, was a theocracy, rather like present-day Iran. Religious leaders held an enormous amount of political power, but they were not elected, and nor were the kings. So you had an unelected power-base who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary people. But “What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

And then that incredibly familiar, perhaps over-familiar passage from Matthew, which we call the “Beatitudes” – the blessings with which Matthew opens the collection of Jesus’ teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, and so on.

So what are we to make of all this? Why do the lectionary compilers think that the Sermon on the Mount is so important that it deserves several weeks’ study?

I think, don’t you, that it’s because we don’t hear the words any more. We don’t hear how they would have struck the first listeners. We don’t notice them – they are part of our culture, part of the stuff we have “always” known about Christianity.

I’ve been looking at a few modern paraphrases of this passage, to see if they can make it feel more relevant. I particularly like this one, from a church in Australia:
“Those who depend entirely on God for their welfare
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“Those who are stricken with grief
    have got it made,
        because they will receive the ultimate comfort.

“Those who allow others to have first claim on everything
    have got it made,
        because the whole world will be given to them.

“Those who hunger and thirst to see the world put right
    have got it made,
        because they will be richly satisfied.

“Those who readily treat others better than they deserve
    have got it made,
        because they will be treated with extravagant mercy.

“Those whose hearts are unpolluted
    have got it made,
        because they will see God.

“Those who forge peace and reconciliation in places of hostility
    have got it made,
        because they will be known as God’s own children.

“Those who are attacked and abused for sticking to what is right
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“When people turn on you
    and do all they can to make your life a misery;
when they make false allegations about you
    and drag your name through the mud,
        all because of your association with me,
    you have really got it made!
Kick up your heels and party,
    because heaven is coming
        and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams!
You are in great company,
    because they were just as vicious
        to God’s faithful messengers in the past.”
©2002 Nathan Nettleton

The thing is, back in the day, people thought – as we are inclined to think today – that when all is going well, when we have plenty, or at least enough, when life is smooth and there aren’t any humps in the road, then, they thought back then, and we think today, that God is blessing us. And, of course, that is true.

But it’s just when things are going well, when life is smooth and we are happy that we are inclined to forget God. Oh, we may go on going to church and so on, but we aren’t necessarily living a holy life. God is basically part of the background, not front and centre.

And so God asks, in the words of the prophet Micah,
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
Answer me!”

And the people, irritated – after all, who needs God when life is going smoothly? The people respond, “Well, okay, what do you want? Doves? Sheep? Rivers of olive oil? Herds of oxen? Our firstborn child?”

And God responds, “Don’t be silly;
You already know what’s wanted:
To do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God!”

“To do justice, and to love kindness,
 and to walk humbly with your God!”

God is saying pretty much the same thing here as in the Beatitudes, isn’t He? We are blessed – God blesses us – when we hunger and thirst after righteousness. We are blessed – God blesses us – when we are merciful, kind, treat others better than they deserve. And so on.

It’s interesting, I always think, that if you read Luke’s version of the sermon, he doesn’t say “Poor in spirit”, he just says “Blessed are you poor”:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.”

And he goes even further:
“‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets!”

I don’t suppose that Jesus means that it is wrong to be happy, or to have sufficient for our needs, or whatever; it’s not about misery now in order to rejoice in heaven. After all, he is on record as saying that he has come that we might have life and have it abundantly! And given his own track record of providing several hundred gallons of wine at the fag-end of a wedding, and enough food from a small boy’s packed lunch to have twelve basketfuls of leftovers, he can scarcely want us to live in poverty and want!

But – people do. Refugees. Victims of war. Victims of famine. People who are homeless for whatever reason, often due to mental illness, but not always. And while one other person is in want, then we should not be content. You read awful things on the Internet about churches – mostly in the USA, it has to be said, but not invariably – where people are not welcomed because they are different, perhaps their sexuality is different, or their skin colour. And, of course, we in the UK have a very poor track record on that last one. No, we should not be content.

As St John reminds us, if we don’t love our brother, who we have seen, how can we love God, who we haven’t? If we exclude people for any reason, we are not doing God’s will – and it is those who we exclude who receive God’s blessing. If we say horrible things about people, we are not doing God’s will – and it is the ones we are horrible about who receive God’s blessing.

For Jesus’ followers, what he was saying was revolutionary. He couldn’t mean that, could he? He couldn’t really mean that God wasn’t blessing the rich and the powerful? It was the “little people”, not the influential ones, who mattered most?

But the Bible has always said that! “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It wasn’t unique. Over and over again the prophets, perhaps especially Micah, but not only him, inveigh against those who use false measures, those who rob the poor, those who get rich at the expense of others. Over and over again we are taught that other people matter just as much as we do, if not more so.

And over and over again we forget. Over and over again we start to think that because God loves me, and I’m like this, the people who God loves are all going to be like this. We forget that God loves everybody. Even Donald Trump! Even members of ISIS.

But seriously, that’s why we need to be reminded of these passages every so often. God does actually mean it! “You are blessed” “You are happy” “You’ve got it made!” However we may translate it, it’s true that God smiles on those who this world considers of little importance. And we, who have been blessed so very richly with the material things of life, we need to keep an eye on ourselves lest we become complacent, and lest we forget God. Amen.

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