Psalm 3 Redux – Revd Carla Grosch Miller;
The Church of the Beatitudes on the shores of Lake Galilee in Israel is an intriguing place. The church building is beautiful; the grounds provide a place of tranquillity; and the hospitality shown to strangers is exceptional. When some of us visited the place last year I had to warn the group not to fill up on the pasta that would be passed round as that was only one of several courses coming our way whilst there are few sights more satisfying than that of a nun pushing a trolley full of ice-cold beers towards you on a hot day! So…welcoming, generous, peaceful and beautiful…in many ways it’s a model church.
And yet, like most churches, if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find reason to laugh and to frown. Around those magnificent gardens, for example, you’ll find excerpts from the Beatitudes and other of Jesus’ teachings and, for me, few things symbolize the peculiarity of religion more than this image –
“Let anyone who thirst come to me and drink.” Says Jesus
“Water not for drink.” Says the Church!!!
Perhaps that says it all! ‘Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest’, says Jesus. ‘Terms and conditions apply’, says the Church!
Sadly, though, one discovers that such Christian contradiction isn’t only skin deep when you learn that the Church of the Beatitudes, this perfect chapel of peace built near the spot where the greatest ever sermon on love was preached, that this place was in fact commissioned and funded by the brutal dictator, Benito Mussolini.
“The sins of religion have gone public,” we heard earlier, “rigidity, hypocrisy, intolerance and worse…”
Well, if the Church of the Beatitudes embodies some of the inherent tensions within Christianity – a message of peace and men of war; a welcoming Messiah and human made restrictions – then the history of how the Church has interpreted those tricky sayings of Jesus for which the church is named only highlights the challenges of religion all the more.
You see, over the past two thousand years, many Christian leaders have looked at the mystery and majesty of Jesus’ declarations of blessing, didn’t know quite what to do with them, so panicked and turned them into commands! To be a true follower of Christ, thou shalt be poor, hungry, miserable, they decreed.
Perhaps you’ve been into one of those churches who have the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes side by side behind the altar, promoting their equivalency as instructions to follow…or even in a church that has represented them as the two stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai moments before he had a hissy fit and broke them! In other words, the Church has often attempted to domesticate the divine, turning the wild and radical sayings of Jesus into a wet and rigid checklist of dos and don’ts against which we can judge ourselves and, most importantly, other people too!
Some leaders have gone further than this and have used the blessings given by Jesus to pacify the poor and uphold unjust systems of power. “Are you hungry?” They ask the starving masses. “Well Jesus says you will be filled so quit your complaining. Are you poor, now? Don’t revolt, because in the next life all shall be well. In fact, there’s no point worrying about your suffering on Earth because your eternal life is all that really matters!” And thus, Jesus’ blessings are used by the powerful to promise the hungry pie in the sky when they die and the ‘opium of the people’ is supplied to the masses!
And if you think that’s not right…get a load of these!
Granted, I might not be the intended audience for scatter cushions and jewellery but when Jesus first shared those world-shaking sayings to his rag tag bunch of fishermen and outcast women two thousand years ago, I’m not convinced that he had merch in mind! That diamond encrusted ‘Blessed’ necklace costing over £3000 doesn’t fit too squarely with Jesus’ blessing of the poor and woes to the rich…and don’t get me started on the tsunami of smugness that is found on social media accompanying the tag #blessed!
So…treating them as Commandments; twisting them to keep the poor in their place or turning them into cutesy items of personal or interior decoration, the Church’s response to Jesus’ blessings and woes has often been more woeful than blessed!
Of course, it usually is easier to point out where things are wrong rather than to suggest a better way…so come on then Phil, you might be thinking, if these are the wrong ways of understanding Jesus’ blessings what’s the right way of understanding them?! Well, I’m glad you asked! But, thankfully for us all, I’m not yet arrogant enough to think that after two thousand years or struggle and misinterpretation of Jesus’ words that today I can tell you exactly what Jesus meant when he said them…and beware anyone who tells you different! If I’m honest, Jesus’ words here do confuse and confound me. Blessed are the poor?! Try saying that to the single mother whose universal credit is yet to kick in meaning she has to forego food so her kids can eat! Dance and leap for joy when people revile you?! I tend to keep my dancing and leaping for joy for happier occasions…like England rugby wins, for instance…you’ll see next week! And how about this ‘woe to you who are laughing now’?! As a church that thinks it’s good to laugh, how are we to take these words?! The truth is, I don’t have the answers. But then, I don’t think Jesus meant us too. Not in a clear cut, black and white way, anyway…for Jesus was the one who frustrated those who thought they knew it all by responding to their questions with further questions, by using parables and poetry to teach, by offering his friends sayings to reflect upon, wrestle with, question and attempt to live into. Following him doesn’t mean having all the answers or ticking off a list of ‘right’ things to believe or do in order to be in the club. No, following Jesus is much more wild, dangerous and rewarding that that!
But for those of us who feel more confused than ever and would like at least something to give us a handle on those words of Jesus, well I think Luke gives us two details about the blessings that are either different or absent from Matthew’s version and which might help us here.
The first is that Luke tells us ‘Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place with a crowd of his disciples and great multitude of people’. Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place with them. Could it be that Luke was making a larger point here than just the choreography of the occasion? In Luke’s account of things, we read that the God whom we meet in Jesus isn’t one who expects us to ascend to God through keeping all the commandments or having all the right answers. The good news of the gospel isn’t that we can be holy enough, clever enough or #blessed enough to escape the challenges of this world to be God in the next. On the contrary, the good news is that God came down to us…is with us…in the chaos of our lives. That when we’re struggling, hungry, weeping or feeling hated, God is with us, offering comfort, providing hope. That when we got lost in our own wealth, obsessed by consumption or trapped chasing the next high, God is with us, suggesting a different way, offering life in all its fullness. For the Christian God doesn’t hit us with laws from on high or the promise of rewards in heaven for those struggling now; rather God meets us in the messiness and magnificence of our daily living.
Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, then – Luke tells us – he looked up at his disciples and said: Blessed are you…From Luke’s first chapter to his last – from the blindness of Zechariah to transformed vision on the road to Emmaus – Luke uses examples of physical sight and blindness to denote something much deeper that’s going on in Jesus’ ministry. Could it be that this line – Jesus looking at his disciples – might reveal something of what the subsequent blessings and woes are all about?
You see, those who Jesus blesses – the poor and hungry, the mourning and excluded – these were the ones who were often invisible in his day. These were the ones who had to stay on the margins, hidden from society, ignored by the world. In looking at them and blessing them, perhaps Jesus is saying – I see you, God sees you. If you’re bereaved, lonely, feeling forgotten about – I see you, God sees you. If you’re tired from pretending that all is well; if you hide your tears for when you’re alone; if you try to exclude that part of yourself that you hate – perhaps Jesus is saying – I see you, God sees you. For you are not invisible, excluded or forgotten; you are seen, important and loved. And for those of us who forget ourselves in our hunt for wealth, fame or self-centred pleasure…perhaps Jesus is saying – I see you too. I love you too…but that’s not the path to true joy that you’re on. Rather, come home and we can change the world together!
“The sins of religion have gone public..”…we heard earlier… “But you, O God, continue to re-create the world, dancing at fragile edges, breathing at the margins, inviting us to fashion the world anew in love.” Maybe that’s what Jesus’ blessings and woes were about all along!
This coming week, may we meet with the God who came down to be with us. May we know that we are seen and loved and blessed, just as we might see, love and bless others. May we accept the divine and dangerous invitation to fashion this church, this community, this world anew in love. Amen.