Sunday 29 January 2017
Micah 6: 1-8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31 & Matthew 5: 1-12
In my teens I discovered the music of Simon and Garfunkel, beginning with a mix-tape that my Dad put together. It was by that time passed their golden age but I knew what I liked of their repertoire, especially the wistful, longing, folky stuff. I was less keen on the jarring, enraged music, the tracks with deceptively gentle carols set against depressing 7 o’clock news broadcasts, like the song Silent Night, the songs that were trying to tell me something. I preferred to be sympathised with, to be comforted and lulled. So the track ‘Blessed’ wasn’t on my play list. It is, as you may guess, based on the Beatitudes from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but the music was jarring and angry, the harmonies harsh, and seemed to me to be at odds with those seemingly gentle and comforting passages that I knew so well.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit.
Blessed is the lamb whose blood flows.
Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.
O Lord, why have you forsaken me?
I got no place to go,
I’ve walked around Soho for the last night or so.
Ah, but it doesn’t matter, no.
The song felt disturbing and uncomfortable to me.
This portion of Matthew’s gospel is very familiar, and Matthew constructed his good news very carefully so as to make it perfectly clear that Jesus, the travelling preacher from the back of beyond, was doing things that reflected and completed the saving work that God did through his servant Moses, in the hugely significant period in the history of the Jewish people, the slavery in and then Exodus from Egypt, to find again their promised land. Jesus went to the mountain top, just as Moses had to collect the ten commandments (twice), and Jesus spoke, not a set of laws to be obeyed or even a set of statements to be agreed to, but eight descriptions of what it means to live in this world as if the world was ruled by God, as if the kingdom of God was here.
This is disturbing, because these eight descriptions are not about congratulating ourselves on our dedication and humility, and being reminded of our reward in the life to come, but on recognising what is missing, what we lack now, and how we need to turn to God as the only source of the strength we need to love and to follow.
For the poor in spirit; when we know that we are not perfect we are less prone to the trap of pride, we are more able to respect and value others, and less likely to dismiss others who are poor in other ways.
For those who mourn; when we feel deeply what is missing from the world, face squarely our own losses and the grief of possibilities squandered, or lives lost, creation spoiled, hope crushed. If even then we can reach out and accept the strength which God provides, then maybe we will be comforted and will be the bringers of comfort to others.
For those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; hunger and thirst are very physical, bodily experiences, not just feeling a bit thirsty or a bit hungry because we’ve missed lunch. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness the image is of a deep, almost bodily longing that this world, where people who God loved into being live out their lives, should be one where God’s priorities guide how society lives and loves and works together.
The other beatitudes make similar disturbing claims, that those who live in this world while trying to live God’s priorities, need not expect success and a comfortable life; if we feel deeply the divisions and injustices of our world, as one prayer has it, then we share in the longing heart of God, who shared bodily in our lives in the life of Jesus, from Galilee of the Gentiles.
This is not new. Micah was a prophet sharing the yearning of God that his people should not just go through the motions of sacrifice and ritual, but should engage their hearts and minds in a relationship with God, something personal, something that goes somewhere. Otherwise it’s like switching on a car, looking in the mirror, indicating, pressing the accelerator but going nowhere. That only happens if you put it in gear and take the handbrake off.
St Paul was also aware that life with God was disturbing. During the season of Epiphany, the church reminds itself that the life of God in Jesus was a gift not just for the Jews but for everyone, including Greeks &/or Gentiles. For all people, living in the reign of God while living in this world would be odd, Paul calls it foolishness. He had no miraculous signs to convince the Jews, nor stunning argument to convince the Gentiles, just the life cut short, the traitor’s execution and yet the continued presence of Jesus from Nazareth, in whom those who encountered him encountered God; to Paul as to Matthew, faith is a relationship, not a clever argument that we have to agree to, nor stunning acts of power that we can’t explain. Faith can’t be proved. But our God wants to be known, and invites us to know him.
The American writer and humourist, Finlay Peter Dunne, who died in the 1930s, is generally acknowledged to have coined the phrase, ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ The phrase has variously been used to describe the effect of art, newspapers and Eleanor Roosevelt. It could well be used to describe the effect of Jesus words on the mountain, addressing his close friends and the crowds who followed them, then gathered by the writer of Matthew and addressed to his new Christian community. Later this gospel was collected into the official scriptures of the church as it organised itself on a larger scale. These words comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable; what do they do for us? For me, a little of both. I see why they so appealed to singers and songwriters in the 1960s, wanting to use their gifts to express their sadness and anger at the injustices they saw around them.
If we take these sayings to heart, as a description of life in this world but with God’s priorities, we will be disturbed by the situations of loss and hurt and brokenness, where positive thinking does not make it alright, and success does not come if you pray hard enough. God’s priorities seem to be righteousness and mercy, working for peace however distant it seems, acknowledging that the world is not right, but it is worth the effort. This is our comfort, because we are not left alone, we who are broken too are given strength to be God’s people in God’s world, to recognise the value that God places on all that he has made. We are being made new, so that knowing our weakness we accept God’s grace, and in our lives his glory shines for the world.