Friday, January 28, 2011

Epiphany +4

The other day I read some background about the custom of saying ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezes - apparently it can be traced right back to the Roman empire – and of course back then sneezing was a very good sign that you might have contracted plague, so possibly the ‘bless you’ originally had a serious precautionary purpose – the person being blessed might be just about to fall off their perch so they needed all the blessings they could get – there are some other theories too but the point is whatever the original meaning was, it has been lost – it’s become an automatic thing – someone sneezes, we say ‘bless you’.

I have to admit to being a bit ambivalent about it as a form of ‘goodbye’ – sometimes it strikes me as a bit hokey – on the other hand there’s something in the words, ‘bless you’ that can’t just be translated ‘have a nice day’ – there’s something in it that conveys – at the very least – a sense of well-wishing, a sense of protection against the uncertainties of life – at the very least the words ‘bless you’ seem to represent an appeal to God’s will that God’s creatures should thrive and be fruitful – and to say ‘I have been blessed’ is to evoke an image of generosity, of joy and of plenty. 

So blessing is about protection and favour, gift and abundance.  This is of course an image of creation itself, that in the Genesis story is is surrounded by God’s blessings from the very beginning, and of the abundance of God’s creative goodness.  In the ancient world beatitudes – lists of proverbs that started with the words, ‘blessed is …’ were a popular sort of folk wisdom -  though most of them were fairly trite, along the lines of ‘blessed is the man who has many fine sons’ - but in today’s reading from the Gospel, Jesus takes the popular idea of blessing and turns it on its head.  For a start when we look at the people he’s calling blessed, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of abundance or good fortune.  This is even more obvious when we read Matthew’s version of the blessings alongside what seems to be the older version preserved in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus’ blessing is pronounced on those who are literally poor, the literally hungry and those who weep.  The kind of poverty Jesus is talking about includes the poverty of those who are homeless or unemployed, the poverty of widows and orphans, as well as the poverty of a whole people who are oppressed – and in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Jesus is more clearly echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah – proclaiming a new deal for underdogs, claiming that God’s priorities and God’s kingdom are connected with justice and transformation in the here and now.

However Matthew’s version of the blessings has undergone a subtle change – the focus in the version we read this morning is not so much on those who are literally oppressed as on those who are being challenged to live in a new way and take on a new set of priorities – not the poor but the poor in spirit.  It is not that Matthew, when he writes his gospel, disagrees with the original sayings – but that the community he is writing for are reasonably well off and need to hear a word for them in their own circumstances.  It’s a fair enough question, isn’t it? - if the kingdom of God is a new deal for the poor, well, what does that mean for the rich, or at least for those who – like us – at least know where they are going to sleep tonight and where their dinner is coming from?  And so Matthew says it is about living out of the right relationship with God, and with other people; an attitude of humility, of lowliness, of hunger for righteousness, purity of heart, of being peacemakers, of being compassionate.  An attitude, in short, that means we are living in solidarity with those who are literally dispossessed, who are literally hungry. 

The danger in reading Matthew’s version of the beatitudes without one eye on the Luke’s more literal version, is that we can over-spiritualise them – keeping them connected with the earlier meaning reminds us that righteousness is nothing less than a yearning for and working towards God’s reign of love in the here and now.  Matthew’s version, like Luke’s, points us toward the fact that the people Jesus is calling blessed are the ones whose lives do not overflow with the sort of abundance and security that we would rather think of as blessing.  And if Luke’s more literal version makes it sound as though the blessing that the poor will receive is going to happen in the next life, as a sort of compensation for the rough deal they’re getting now – then Matthew’s list of beatitudes that focus on the how and the why of faithful living makes it clear that blessing is not a sort of delayed reward, but a natural consequence of a particular way of living.  Matthew’s beatitudes point to a paradox – that it’s only when we give up the illusion of security and abundance that money and security and status provide, it is only when we open ourselves to the risk and insecurity of a life lived in dependence on God and in relationship with others, that we experience real abundance.  Those who mourn feel pain because they have lived in relationship, open to love and growth and pain and loss.  The merciful offer mercy  - because they have taken the risk to live with open and vulnerable minds and hearts.  Peacemakers offer reconciliation and a new start - because they are prepared to take the risk of seeing life from their enemy’s perspective.  The poor in spirit are blessed - because they refuse to believe in the myth of their own self-sufficiency, instead taking the risk of living out of the awareness of their true relationship to God and to those around them.  Blessing is a process, not a payment, and it comes as we learn to engage God and the world around us in a new way.  Blessing comes as a consequence of reorienting ourselves towards another, of making room for others by taking up less room for ourselves – blessing, in other words, comes when we participate in God’s primal act of creation.

St Paul gets to precisely the same point – what Matthew describes as poverty, Paul talks about as foolishness.  The point is that the technology of self – the whole apparatus by which as competent adults we learn to navigate the world – the technology of self is what we have to give up if we want to live in right relation to God.  Does this sound a bit tough?  Because it is!  When Paul talks about the wisdom of the world and contrasts it with the foolishness of God, he is not just saying, oh, even on a bad day God has got more power than all the armies of the world put together; even when he’s not even trying God is wiser than human wisdom – what he is doing is pointing out the paradox – or the apparent contradiction - that God encounters us not in power and strength, but in weakness – the cross, after all, was the Roman Empire’s greatest and most brutal symbol of shame and failure.  A bit hard to take seriously as a symbol of salvation if what you’re really after is to be reassured that God has got it all under control.  God’s power, in fact, is precisely the power of humility and weakness, it is the power to trust in relationship more than in competence, even when laying down everything we think we know and all the power we think we have means getting pushed aside onto the cross. 

So Paul is claiming that God uses what is weak in the world to expose the poverty of human claims to power.  When power and status become an end in themselves, and especially when the exercise of power and the privileges of wealth deny the basics of life to others, then it becomes demonic – a point perhaps that resonates with the footnote this last week – so far as I know it didn’t even rate a mention on the nightly TV news – that the death toll in Haiti from the ongoing cholera epidemic has now exceed 4,000.  This tiny, impoverished and politically bankrupt country in the Caribbean, only two hours flight from the richest nation in the world, continues to shame the humanity of the entire western world.  Our own country, Australia, spent five times as much last year on a failed attempt to get the world to play a game of soccer here in 2020, then on humanitarian aid since the earthquake that devastated Haiti a year ago.  So how can we claim, as the suffering of the Haitian people continues, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed?  There are no pat answers, but as long as the suffering of the world’s poor continues, Christ continues to be crucified. 

The beatitudes tell us that we are blessed, and we become a blessing to others, when we join with God in the self-emptying and self-giving work of creation.  To be blessed is to be recreated and transformed into the image of God.  The promise of Jesus is that God’s good and loving purposes will be completed in all who suffer.  For that, we can only wait in faithful expectation.  But if, like Matthew’s community, we are not living under oppression ourselves, then we are being challenged to live in solidarity.  If there are people in our own community who live on the edges, people whose experience is of being excluded or not being welcome, then we are challenged to live in solidarity.  That’s what it means to be poor in spirit.  When we dare to take a perspective that’s wider than our own horizons, when we learn to live out of awareness of our true relationship to God and to others, then we will be blessed.