Sermon on the Beatitudes Matt 4:1-12
So today we have the most famous bit of the Sermon on the Mount, and on the surface it’s all lovely. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart. That’s nice. As the life of Brian said, I’m glad the meek get something, because they have a terrible time of it.
All lovely on the surface. But underneath, these “blessings” show us just how very very hard it is to be a Christian.
I’ve been struck recently, since the Epiphany, about the notion of unwelcome gifts. The gifts which Christ was given by the Magi taught Jesus about his true self, about the person God was calling him to be. And that included unwelcome gifts of sacrifice and death.
The beautitudes is a similar giving of gifts. And similarly they teach us what God calls us to be. And they may be similarly unwelcome.
You are blessed, Jesus says, when you are poor in spirit, when you suffer for righteousness, when you are persecuted for Jesus’ sake. These are the moments of blessing. These are the times when God comes close.
Perhaps it would be better to think of these things, not as blessings, or gifts, but as tools which we are given, which we need to perform the job of being a Christian.
Because that job of being a Christian is the job of nurturing that true self which, as Paul says, is hidden with Christ in God. That self which God knows and made. And part of that nurturing requires us to set aside all the false-selves which build up over our lives.
False selves are everywhere. Almsot all the titles and labels we are given and give to people are false-self labels. We get labelled as Doctor, Reverend, Lord or Lady, Professor, Teacher, Mr or Mrs or Ms, we are called tax-payers, service-users, valued customers, consumers We are called British, Scottish, European, Episcopalian, Christian, rich, poor, upper class, working class, conservative, liberal, progressive, backward, Daily Mail readers, Guardian readers, silent majority, there is no end to the labels that people put upon us, and the labels we choose for ourselves. And none of them, not one of them, is remotely helpful in nurturing our true selves. Not one.
All of those identities, those false-self labels are about status, about grading ourselves and others. They are labels of ego, and they can be labels of disapproval and judgment. These are the identities which, if threatened or challenged, cause us to be angry and offended, because false identities, lilke all lies, can only be defneded by aggression. And none of that is helpful in nurturing our true selves.
Indeed, our Micah reading says this very thing – that those false identities are worthless to God. “Shall I bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”
Of course not.
But the true self – we know what that looks like. Think of those you really love. No-one thinks “I love my family because they are middle-class, Guardian-readers, I love my daughter because she is a professor. I love my mother because she is a consumer. All of those things are irrelevent to why we love those we love. We love them because we know their authentic self. We see them as they truly are.
It is the nurturing of that true self, stripped of all the false-selves, which is our task upon the earth. And in our readings this morning, from Micah and from Matthew, we are given the tools we need to nurture our true selves. And they are uncomfortable gifts to receive.
We are told to find our true selves, according to Micah, by doing Justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God.
In the Beatitudes, to find our true selves, we must be prepared to be “blessed” by being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, by being poor in Spirit, by being reviled for Christ’s sake.
And my thoughts were – Have I ever done enough to be persecuted for the righteousness that I have done? Have I ever risked persecution for what I believed was true? Have I ever sought justice and loved mercy enough for anyone to persecute me? Have I done enough to nurture my true self?
Because one thing is for sure. There is no lack of opportunity in our world for doing justice and seeking righteousness, and loving mercy.
We live in a world where every day there are headlines of hatred, bigotry and prejuice assailing us,and whereas when I was growing up these things were the stuff of foreign reports, of developing nations, they are now reports within the UK.
We have details each day of politicians and leaders who live only in those egocentric false-selves – people who live according to what flatters and what gives them status. Leaders who take offence and nurture anger and hatred.
We live in a country where last year in response to the Syria disaster, with 12 milliion people made homeless, the UK took in 215 refugees. Two bus loads in one year.
We live in a country where our own immigration laws would have turned away Mary Joseph and Jesus if they were fleeing Herod’s tyranny.
And last night I read the news that we live in a world where the largest democracy has now enacted laws which mean that people like Mo Farah our Gold medal winner, and the conservative Member of Parliament for Cambridge, Nadhim Zahawi, are now banned from going to the USA because of where they were born. And if people of that standing can be persecuted, the poor and the vulnerable are in real trouble. Here is no shortage of justice in need to be done.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Have I done enough to be persecuted? What, exactly, have I risked for righteousness?
It’s squirmingly uncomfortable for me to preach sermons like this, about immigration and “real world” stuff. And when I saw those truths about the injustice which we can and should do something about, I thought, “why have I not preached about this before?”
The horrible truth is because I get worried that I might earn the disfavour of my congregation. That I might be labelled with one of those false-self labels of “bleeding heart liberal” or similar. That is the level of persecution I fear. I think you’ll agree that’s rather cowardly.
I have risked so little in my life for the sake of righteousness, and I have a pulpit, and so today I have risked a very little, in preaching on this subject in the hope that it may encourage you to risk a little too. Because you knnow we are powerful. We are wealthy. We have intelligence. We have influence. We have intellect. We can save lives. If we risk that very small risk of being persecuted in order to protect the vulnerable and safeguard the innocent, we can save lives.
Because it’s not just for their sake. It’s for ours. It is in that risk, and in that walking humbly with our God in the path of righteousness, that we find our true selves. It is in that risk that we truly wlk in righteousness. It is in that risk that we will find true peace.