Epiphany 4 • 29 Jan 2017

Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Rev. Chris Udy

We’re living through a revolution -
a revolution of ideas
and technology and social values,
a revolution in relationships
and culture and education.
Many of the things we learned at school
are either wrong or useless,
and the children who begin school this week
will probably spend the next 20 years in education
before they have the knowledge and skills they’ll need
to compete for a job at the end.
They’ll also have to compete along the way
to get into the courses they want,
at the schools and colleges and universities they want
to have a chance at doing
the work they want to do.

The kids who’ll get into the courses they choose
will be the ones who think faster,
work harder, achieve more brilliantly
than their friends, their peers, their competition.
And those who’ll get work
when their courses are complete
will have to achieve even more fiercely,
outshine even more brilliant competition,
because then they’ll be measured,
not only against those few who made it
into the courses of their choosing,
but also against people of experience and maturity,
with proven achievements and contacts and history.

And at every point of achievement,
on every step of the ladder,
people will lose - they’ll fail.
They’ll be left out or pushed aside or stall -
or miss their footing completely
and drop to the bottom of the heap.
Universities and skills courses are full of people
desperately trying to get an edge - get a head start -
get an entry onto the next level of difficulty -
like a computer game -
and about the only training courses
that are crying out for applicants
are those that offer training for sacrificial service
like teaching and nursing.

And that’s not too surprising when you think
that in a world defined by survival and competition
and success and achievement
the essential heart of those sacrificial jobs
reflects values like those we heard
in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel.
“Blessed are the meek” Jesus said -
for they will inherit the earth” -
and cynics reply - only if their surname is Trump.
“Blessed are those
who hunger and thirst for justice -
for they will be filled” -
Imagine telling that
to the indigenous people of Australia.
“Blessed are the peacemakers -
for they will be called Children of God” -
Peacemakers these days are usually derided
as ‘luvvies’, or cowards, or ‘bleeding hearts’ –
not so much ‘Children of God’.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit,
the mourners, the merciful,
the pure in heart - and the persecuted.

There’s no passage in the Bible
that points more clearly
to the enormous gulf
between the world’s values
and those of the reign of God
than this one.
Anyone who reads those statements of Jesus
with an understanding
of the world’s economics or politics
can see that for most people
they don’t add up.

Mourners don’t get comforted -
they get ignored -
they get told to cheer up;
they live with daily pressure to move on.
The merciful don’t receive mercy -
they get abused, and duped, and imposed upon.
And the pure in heart?
They might see God sooner than they think -
the world says you don’t survive long
in a market economy
by being good.

For hardliners the Beatitudes are a joke.
They serve as an example
of how stupid Christians can be.
They like the joke even better
when they read the translations
that print the first word in each statement as “happy” -
“Happy are the poor in spirit
happy are the persecuted” -
and they say “There you are!
The Christians not only can’t see
what’s happening in the world -
they even have their emotions wired up backwards!”

“This is foolishness” they say -
“Dangerous, destructive foolishness -
who could survive on teaching like this?
It’s impossible” - they say -
so they ignore the teaching of Jesus
and they keep searching for the deal,
for the edge, for the competitive advantage,
for useful friendships and inside information.

The Beatitudes are just the beginning of a sermon
told by Jesus to his disciples
in which he describes what looks like
an impossible way of life.
He appears to define standards
of behaviour and ethics
where one angry thought, or one lustful glance,
are enough to fail the test.
He also seems inconsistent.
He tells his disciples to shine their light before all people,
and at the same time
not to act out their righteousness in public.

For those who read the Sermon on the Mount
as God’s law for Christians -
as the standard for successful Christian life,
the impression is impossibly difficult.
He sets up commandments that can’t be kept,
and expectations that can’t be fulfilled.
We might have thought that climbing
the ladder of success in the world was hard -
but the sermon on the mount
makes the world’s struggle look like child’s play.
In the world
at least you only have to compete against people -
but in the sermon Jesus says
“Be perfect therefore,
as your heavenly Father is perfect”
and who can win in a race like that?

It’s foolishness - the world says -
foolishness and weakness,
and if you want us to take you seriously,
you’d better do better than that.

But that’s not a new or unusual criticism for Christians.

Paul found that his critics in Corinth
were saying the same thing.
He wrote – “The Jews demand signs” -
they want to see indications of power -
they want to see things that indicate strength.
The Jewish people in Corinth
they were displaced people -
they lived on the edges of the community,
and they had very little power.
If they were going to be Christian
they wanted to see it work -
they wanted signs and wonders and nothing less.
But power isn’t faithful.
People who are in control one day
are out and writing their memoirs the next.
Signs and wonders might seem strong,
but as everyone knows,
the next time the spectacle has to be bigger,
and brighter, and better -
and one day you just can’t do it anymore -
and then the crowd moves on to the next circus.
The Jews demand signs - Paul wrote -
but that’s not a good foundation for faith
or a reliable test for truth.

The Greeks demand wisdom.
They wanted their truth to be witty and bright
and consistent and cultured and ideologically pure.

Intelligence and reason look good.
They seem to be strong and reliable,
and they seem to provide us with answers.
Scientists and scholars begin
by asking big important questions
like “What is life – and what is it for?
How did we come here?
What are people really like?”
But as we go further and further
we get swamped by information
and intellectual politics
and the games of the mind.
Research is supported or subverted
by powerful vested interests
who will pay for the truth they want to hear.
And as the world gets more complex
we specialise more and more,
reducing the size of our questions
until we end up knowing everything
about the life cycles of cutworms,
or the light signature of alpha centauri,
and we often lose sight
of the big, important questions
in the flood of detail and data.

Jews demand signs - Paul writes -
Greeks demand wisdom -
and the world describes what we offer
as foolishness - foolish weakness.
But we proclaim Christ - and Christ crucified -
The Cross - utter weakness and defeat -
an absolute dealbreaker
to those who trust in power and look for signs;
foolishness to those who trust in reason
and ask for wisdom -
but to those who are called -
both Jews and Greeks,
the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Paul goes on ...
For God’s foolishness
is wiser than human wisdom,
and God’s weakness
is stronger than human strength.

Christian faith re-interprets the world
through one event -
the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Things that don’t make sense -
stupid, weak things - in the eyes of the world -
suddenly change when we recognise
that in Jesus, God is dying on the cross,
and in Jesus, God is risen into life.

If Jesus is risen,
death is not an obstacle or an ending -
it’s a transition
that opens into something more,
and somewhere else.
And if God in Christ is risen into life -
then everything he did in death
and said before his dying
echoes with authority and purpose.

The life of Jesus is a paradigm shift.
Once we looked at birth, and life, and death,
and thought - that’s the picture –
that’s all there is,
limited and discrete and within the frame.
And when we looked at life like that
many things didn’t make sense:
like justice, and hope, and love, and sacrifice,
and faith - most of all faith.
We knew those things were possible,
but they didn’t fit into the frame –
it was too small,
so they didn’t make sense.
Then comes the cross:
the sacrificial life and death
and resurrection of Jesus -
the paradigm shifts,
and the frame that limits life is gone.
Life here and now is just the foreground
of a picture that’s so big
we can’t even imagine the edges,
let alone define them -
and things like justice and hope
and sacrifice and faith - most of all faith -
they move into focus and make sense.

When the world reads the Sermon on the Mount
it sounds like impossible foolishness.
When we read the sermon through the cross,
we recognise the purpose and authority of God.
The poor in spirit, the meek,
the pure in heart ... are blessed -
God is present in and with them,
God is their companion;
God is their blessing.
Mourners are comforted -
the dying and rising God is their comfort,
and the lives of those they have loved and lost
continue in God’s purpose and compassion.
Those who hunger for justice -
and the merciful?
They will find their hope fulfilled
in movements of justice and mercy
that build and grow across generations –
even despite reaction and opposition.

The Sermon on the Mount
is no longer an impossible and foolish standard for life,
nor is it a trap
designed to condemn Christians to failure,
it becomes a vision of wholeness -
an offer of guidance -
the definition of a new relationship,
no longer based on competition and failure,
but on God’s offer of grace.
We can’t live up to … we can’t achieve -
the relationship described in the sermon on the mount.
No amount of effort on our part
can get us to the point
where everything God could require of us
has been done.
But the final measure of life
isn’t made like that.
The Sermon on the Mount -
and Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth -
say that life can’t be measured
by how far you might have climbed up any ladder.
Life is a gift, given in grace;
grace revealed in the self-sacrifice of the cross.

For many of our neighbours life is not like that.
It’s a test that they either keep failing,
or just scrape through.
All those young people who can’t afford university,
all those graduates who can’t get jobs,
all the people who can’t get a foot on the ladder,
or who’ve fallen to the bottom of the heap.
For all of us who have failed -
or failed to achieve -
or are hanging on by our nails and grim willpower -
God has a message of hope:
Blessed are the poor in spirit -
reign of God is for you.
Blessed are the mourners - you will find comfort.
Blessed are the meek - the earth is yours.
Blessed are you who are hungry and thirsty for justice:
you will be filled.

We’re living in a revolution -
but it didn’t start in the sixties, or through TV,
or with computers and the ‘net,
it’s been going now for 2000 years,
and it began when Jesus sat down on that mountain top
and described to his disciples
what the world God intends will be.
Sometimes we might think
that the revolution’s over,
and we’re going backwards -
but every time the world thinks God is dead
God comes back in resurrection,
and we see the reign of God closer
than it’s ever been before.

Over the next few weeks
as we read through
and think about the sermon on the mount
we’ll discover more of its depth.
As we read,
may God help us to accept his gift of life -
and set us free from our fear of failure,
to learn to live by grace. Amen.