Friday, February 21, 2014

Epiphany 7 - Loving your neighbour

I think it’s safe to say the balaclava has an image problem. It’s become the dress-code of baddies, of robbers and terrorists – if you see someone in a TV movie wearing a balaclava you know they are on their way to a bank heist, if someone comes towards you on the street wearing a balaclava you instinctively get out of the way. What you may not realise is that the ambiguous reputation of the balaclava goes back a long long way.
Yes, the balaclava is named after a town in Ukraine, and the original balaclavas were knitted by British women in the 19th century who sent them to the menfolk to keep them warm fighting in the bitter Russian winters during the Crimean War. What is less well known is that the balaclava changed roles as the returning soldiers did, broken veterans who resorted to theft in order to survive at home, after the war.
The enemy has always worn a mask. During the Gallic Wars of the first century the hard-bitten Roman troops were terrified by the blue-painted faces of Celtic warriors. But the mask is ambiguous – it not only terrifies but it hides the humanity of its wearer. Even recent war movies often show fighters putting on elaborate masks of camouflage paint before they go into action – masked, the fighter becomes other than human, a figment of our imagination and our fears. The masked enemy allows our fears to run rampant because we no longer recognise that we share a common humanity. This is why propaganda during wartime depicts the enemy using stereotyped images, identikit straw-hatted and black pyjama’d Viet Cong are easier to hate than actual men and women who breathe and love and dream just like us. The false image of the asylum seeker as a queue-jumper, or as an economic opportunist, as a chucker of babies into the water or a lip-sewing fanatic – these are masks, they dehumanise and they allow us to avoid the truth of men and women and children fleeing the violence that has destroyed their homes and lives in their country of origin, only to be caught up in a nightmare of equivalent proportions in Australian concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru.
Except Jesus takes the masks off. Our readings this morning show Jesus, the radical interpreter of Torah, which is to say the rabbi who gets to the root of what the Torah actually means. Jesus the teacher who comes not to do away with the Law but to confront us with it.
I’ve heard it said that the Old Testament is loveless and rule-based, showing us a God to be feared, while the New Testament replaces fear with love and rules with freedom. And of course there is much in the Hebrew Scriptures that offends our modern sensibilities. But when we read carefully we see what Jesus is talking about and what in his life and ministry he is demonstrating for us – the law of love that threads right back into the pre-history of God’s people and today is powerfully on display for us in the book with perhaps the very worst reputation of the lot of them: Leviticus.
We call it the Golden Rule, don’t we, the rule of loving our neighbour as ourselves, and we rightly see that this is the very key to understanding what Jesus is on about. Jesus, of course, puts it right up there in his famous summary of the Law, the two great commandments that we recite every week in church. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength – and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus didn’t make it up – the first of the great commandments is a quote from Deuteronomy and the second is a quote from Leviticus chapter 19. This is built into the DNA of Israel and it continues to link us as Christians with our Jewish sisters and brothers.
Recently – very recently – we have heard from our Government that we need to reassert our Judeo-Christian heritage. This is a sort of code for getting back to educational basics, but also for winding back what conservative politicians see as the relativism of teaching different points of view in history and cultural studies. Well, the horse of multiculturalism bolted several decades ago, Australia is now a modern vibrant country of many faiths and cultures and ethnic backgrounds. We are actually a wonderful example of a modern country that celebrates its multiple traditions and in which people of all backgrounds live together with tolerant good humour. I find this sort of talk from government about getting back to our Judeo-Christian heritage vaguely troubling, with its implicit rejection of other valuable strands of our Australian identity. But here’s the thing. The kernel of that great and multifaceted history that is called the Judeo-Christian heritage is to love your neighbour as yourself. Simple as that. So I agree, let’s get back to basics.
Funnily enough, other great world religions say exactly the same thing. Take Islam, for example. In the Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi (no. 13) we read, ‘Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself’. Hinduism teaches: ‘One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.’ Confucius taught: ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’.
Israel remembers that it is a nation of nomads and homeless wanderers, of refugees and outcasts. After the generations of wandering in the wilderness Israel enters the land that has been promised them where – according to the account in Joshua, they take it by force and put everybody to the sword. According to the account in Judges it happens rather differently, and the returning exiles settle – relatively – peaceably amongst their Canaanite neighbours. Israel becomes a nation surrounded by quarrelsome neighbours with whom it both fights and trades. A Moabite woman becomes the great great great … grandmother of the great Israelite king, David. David’s own enemies, the Philistines, are a vibrant and technologically advanced people with whom Israel eventually learns to live in peace – according to archaeologists the Philistines were eventually fully absorbed into Israel four or five centuries before Christ. Israel endures the shame of exile in Babylon and returns home – again as refugees – with a new fashion for Persian names and a smattering of Persian cultural and religious influences. Israel is next invaded by the armies of the Seleucids, descendants of Alexander the Great, and learns to speak Greek. During the time of Christ Israel is occupied by the Romans who – in 123 AD – disperse the Jewish population to the corners of the Empire.
The United Nations charter on the rights of refugees was signed by Australia amongst most other nations in the aftermath of World War 2. Uppermost in the minds of those who framed this convention was the experience of the most recent round of Jewish asylum seekers immediately prior to and during the War who were denied a safe haven. The so-called Ship of Shame, the MS St Louis, set sail in 1939 to try to find homes for 937 German Jewish refugees. Captain Gustav Schroder was in today’s terminology a people smuggler. The passengers were denied entry in Canada, the United States and Cuba, eventually being returned to their port of origin in Europe where over 200 of them died in German concentration camps. This one event summed up the shame and complicity of the Allied powers in the attempted genocide of Europe’s Jewish population.
Leviticus grounds our treatment of others in a simple observation: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself - for I am the LORD.’ ‘You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God’. The standard with which we treat others is to be the standard of the holiness of God. It goes deeper, in fact I think the love theology of Leviticus goes back to the act of creation itself. God creates the world – light and dark, water and earth, vegetation and animal life, and says that it is good – the Hebrew word is tov. God creates human creatures as the bearers of God’s own image and sets them to live in the centre of creation and God looks at everything that God has made and says, in Hebrew: tov tov. It is very good. Leviticus commands us to love what God has made and loves.
Jesus takes our understanding further. It’s another one of his antitheses. ‘You have heard it said’, he tells us, ‘that you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. (v. 44) Notice that he isn’t quoting Leviticus, there is nothing in Leviticus or in the Torah about hating your enemy, in fact. It would perhaps have been simply ‘common sense’, the common wisdom of the day. But then Jesus does paraphrase Leviticus, and takes it even further: ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven’. (v.44) See how Jesus follows Leviticus in making the standard of our treatment of others the holiness of God? And he also links it with the creative goodness of God, who: ‘makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’. God’s creation is indiscriminate goodness, profligate, even wasteful blessing. God doesn’t wait for us to be deserving before showering us with goodness. That is the standard by which we should treat others.
Needless perhaps to say, our treatment of the alien and the refugee has been unloving. In fact it has been characterised by moral panic, by wilful incitement of prejudice, and by the deliberate imposition of suffering. We are no longer a people of justice and generosity. We have become a fearful and insecure people who have forgotten what it means to be hospitable. This is not the work of one side of Australian politics, but of both sides, who have fed back to us our own darkest instincts and have sought to draw life for themselves from our fears. To put it more plainly, both sides of Australian politics have tried to buy your vote by being cruel to vulnerable people. The one – possibly humanitarian – justification that has been offered, has been to save lives at sea. But with the imposition of a new policy – that of turning back boats – there is no longer any pretence of protecting lives at sea. And with last week’s incident on Manus Island – as yet unclear, but we know one man has lost his life and many others have sustained fearful head injuries, apparently as a result of an attack on the camp from outside – it is now clear that the policy of placing asylum seekers in offshore concentration camps has abandoned any pretence of saving lives. It must be ended.
And Leviticus and Jesus tell us that it can only be ended by love, grounded in the creative love of God. Why? Because it is in loving the alien, the enemy, that the false masks that stereotype and dehumanise are removed. Face to face we meet with our enemy and realise that he – she – is us.


Reverend Evan Pederick
Rector, Anglican Parish of Canning
mob 0433 174 112


Friday, February 14, 2014

Epiphany 6A

Have you ever heard of Murphy's Law?  This is an important part of your education as an Aussie, of course.  Murphy – presumably some pessimistic stockman – gave us the following rule for life.  'In any field of human endeavour', said Murphy, 'if something can go wrong, then it will'.  Then there's part two of Murphy's Law: 'and if everything seems to be going right, then you must have overlooked something'.  I find Murphy's Law applies very strongly whenever I try to do odd jobs around the house. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus also seems to think Murphy's Law applies to the keeping of the Torah, the Law of Moses. 

Actually, he wasn't alone in that.  The Pharisees advocated a similar approach.  You see, they knew that the Law gave life.  This after all was what Moses said, in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses humongous farewell speech when he repeats, over and over again, 'the choice is yours, life or death, God's law or your own way – choose life!'  The Law gives life because it keeps us within the circle of covenant loyalty, it keeps us on the same page, so to speak, with God.  But the Pharisees knew, and Jesus knows, that we human beings tend to wander off.  Give us a simple instruction and within a couple of generations people will be writing new interpretations and commentaries on it, we reassure ourselves that it isn't black and white but shades of grey and wriggle off the hook.  Murphy's Law.  So the approach of the Pharisees was what they called 'building fences around the Torah'.  What that meant was to codify it, fence it in with examples and more specific instructions – and like Jesus, they also built the walls a bit higher by making them more radical – on the basis, I guess, that if you fail at keeping the stricter interpretation of the Law then you just might still find yourself scaping in to the original circle of covenant keeping.

Last week, I commented that Jesus doesn't water anything down, neither, especially in Matthew's Gospel, does Jesus say or do anything that challenges the Law of Moses.  'Don't think I've come to set aside the Law', he cautions us – 'no, not to set it aside but to fulfil it'.  And in today's passage he starts putting some flesh on the bones of that.  These sayings in Matthew's Gospel are sometimes called 'antitheses' – not because Jesus is contradicting the Law of Moses but simply because of the structure of his statements: 'You have heard it said – but I say to you …'.  Jesus is racheting it up here, building fences around the Torah.

Well there are maybe two usual ways of interpreting this.  Neither of them, I hasten to add, are entirely wrong, in my opinion.  Some commentators say that Jesus is being radical here because he is saying, in effect, 'the Law really, really, matters – and you should take it more seriously'.  And so he gives us, if you like, a new version of the Law – the Law of Moses on steroids.  'Well, you've heard it said, do not murder? But I tell you – don't even get angry!'  Biggest trouble with this way of interpreting Jesus' teaching here is that it makes the Christian life seem almost entirely a matter of morality.  The rules of Christian living do matter, but there's more going on here than rule-keeping.

The second way of looking at it is to notice that if keeping the Law in its original format seemed difficult, Jesus' new revised version is clearly impossible!  Some Bible commentators even believe that Jesus is deliberately pushing the Law to its extreme to make the point that we are powerless to actually live up to it.  In some Christian theologies this is the main point – driven to despair, as St Paul seems to be sometimes, by our inability to keep the Law under our own steam, then all we can do is rely on the faithfulness of Christ and the grace of God.  This is a really good point, and one worth keeping front and centre of our consciousness.  A healthy awareness of our own inability to live in ways that reflect God's priorities reminds us of our dependence on God's grace and mercy.  Murphy's Law is alive and well in the business of Christian life and spirituality, and we need in about equal measure a sense of humour and a sense of proportionality that tells us that it is God's initiative, God's mercy and compassion that we see in Jesus, and the leading of the Holy Spirit that does the trick, not our feeble efforts at DIY.

But where I think Jesus is being really radical – and about here, I maybe need to explain the meaning of the word, 'radical'.  Maybe it conjures up images for you of a fiery hellfire and brimstone preacher, or an angry jihadist – but it simply comes from the Latin word for 'root' – radix – getting to the root of something.  And yes, it's related to the English word, 'radish'.  Jesus is radical because he is getting to the root of the Torah – what it is actually about.  You see, the Torah isn't about keeping rules, it is about relationships.  Your relationships matter to God.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example.  The first half are about are relationship with God, and the second half are about our relationships with one another.  Take Jesus' pithy summary of the two greatest commandments that we recite every Sunday – the first one is about our relationship with God, and the second is about our relationships with one another – and the point is that they are interconnected.  You can't be right with God unless you rectify your relationships with one another – and you can't be right with one another unless you rectify your relationship with God.

Understood like this, actually the whole of the Law is a way of reminding us how to honour those with whom we are in relationship. But somehow we forget that, and so get caught up in keeping the rules for the sake of keeping the rules. Not rocking the boat, not getting into trouble or losing the respect of our peers.  Which is why Jesus ups the ante – not to force us to take the Law more seriously, and certainly not to rub our noses in the fact that we can't really live by the rules.  Instead what I think Jesus is trying to do is gently nudge us into imagining what it would actually be like to live in a world where we honour each other as women and men and children who are truly blessed and beloved of God. It's not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder; you also have to treat each other with respect, not letting yourself fly off the handle in anger because that, too, demeans and diminishes God's children.  If murder is the most extreme example then anger can be the first step on a path that denies the possibility of loving relationship.

We need to pause here and take note of the fact that living without anger is both impossible and also that isn't necessarily desirable.  Anger is a primal emotion, it comes from the oldest part of our brains – we are hard-wired for it and it serves a useful adaptive purpose.  At its most basic, anger helps us avoid potentially harmful situations.  But if we hold on to anger, if we nurture and magnify our anger or feed off its energy – then our anger can destroy both us and other people.  That sort of anger closes us off from life-giving relationship and the healing practice of forgiveness.  Anger is primal: what you do with it is determined by whether you are grounded in God's love or the shallow soil of your own self.

So we can't just tick the box – no murder today.  No adultery today.  Jesus points us toward the underlying point that it matters how we treat people, and it matters whether we are choosing life in our relationships.  Are we living towards seeing the reality in one another that each person is a child of God and reflects the beauty and truth of God?  Have I treated this person as the very image of God, or have I diminished that image by projecting my own anger or frustration, have I diminished that image by projecting my own physical desires onto another person in a way that renders them an object in my eyes?  We are hard-wired for anger just as we are hard-wired for hunger or sexual desire – I think we can agree that Jesus' command to amputate troublesome body parts is hyperbole or playful exaggeration but the point is that in our more fundamental identity as creatures made in God's image we have an even deeper need to live towards wholeness not only for ourselves but for others.  Choose life.

A word about divorce.  I read this passage as a Christian who has experienced the breakdown of a marriage relationship, and we live in a society in which at least one third of marriages end in separation and divorce.  Jesus' unequivocal and hard-edged words about divorce can cause a palpitation of self-recrimination, even for ancient failures.  Marriage in particular and human relationships in general are sacred because they mirror God's own characteristic of self-giving love.  As Christians we believe that the covenant of marriage is an echo of God's covenant love for us, and so it is not disposable, not throw-away.  But we also know the reality that sometimes the life-giving option is that a marriage be allowed to end gracefully, so that there can be forgiveness and healing and new growth.  Jesus' words wound us, because we know our own imperfection and that our choices all too often hurt others.  But Jesus' words also gather us in, despite our failures and our imperfections.  For example, did you notice last week that when Jesus said those who break the law will be least in the kingdom and those who keep the law will be great … so whether you keep it or break it you're still in the kingdom?  Maybe the Law isn't the way we earn God's favour or earn a place in God's kingdom. Maybe the Law is - as the great protestant Reformer Martin Luther put it – simply the precious gift of an adoring parent given to beloved children, urging us to treat each other well, and encouraging us to start over – and over and over – whenever we fail.

Choose life.



Friday, February 07, 2014

Epiphany 5A

I remember as a kid seeing a salt lake for the first time out in the wheatbelt.  It was strange to walk across the crusted dry salt surface and taste it – yes, real salt – and to realise that this was a sort of min-desert.  Nothing could grow here, and all around were the dry skeletons of dead trees.  Salt, of course, is the farmer's enemy.  The problem is that the wheatbelt is a very low drainage area so the rain that falls collects in shallow depressions and as it evaporates it leaves behind its natural salts.  The problem of salinity is made worse by farming practices that replace native vegetation with shallow roots – with every fall of rain the water table rises and brings with it the salt stored under the topsoil.  The only real solution is to replant native vegetation which has evolved to be salt-resistant, but the subterranean salt reserves are so enormous that reversing the damage of salinity could take lifetimes in the worst affected areas.

The ancient Romans knew about salinity, and used it as a weapon of war.  Amongst the charming things they did to defeated populations was their practice of sowing good, arable land with salt – simply to make it useless.  But they also knew salt as a vital commodity, as a substance that, in the right proportions, is essential for life – so important was salt, in the ancient economy that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in the stuff – their wages, in salt – were called salarium- from which of course we get the word salary.  Jesus' first listeners also knew that salt was necessary for life, and in the Hebrew Scriptures we read references to salt's essential nature. So for example the prophet Elisha sprinkled salt into the spring at Jericho to purify the water (2 Kings 2:21.)  To eat salt with another person was a sign of loyalty, sort of a passing of the peace pipe, a breaking of bread, a sign of commonality (Numbers 18:19.)  Priests strew salt on sacrifices, and seasoned incense with salt. Parents rubbed salt all over their newborn baby's body as protection against all kinds of ills (Ezekiel 16:4.)

In our modern world we know salt as a basic condiment – humble and useful, and to call somebody 'salt of the earth' is a good thing – we mean they are honest and hardworking, that they don't make a fuss but get on with the job.  Salt needs to be in balance, and by itself it is useless but in the right proportion it preserves, it adds flavour, it zests things up. It changes the soil, the water, the taste of food, the function of the human body.  For salt to work, it must be used with something. To be a disciple, Jesus is saying, is to be like salt, mixed right into the middle of life, adding some zest and making a difference.  Being salt of the earth is a mixed metaphor, in fact – it means being humble and useful, it means being transformative and making a difference – but it carries with it a warning against getting out of control, coagulating in useless piles and poisoning the earth.

The metaphor of light seems easier.  Light shows us the way, it reveals what is hidden, it is beautiful, it extends the hours of daylight so it is useful and allows us to be more productive.  Like salt, of course, light is pretty pointless by itself, in fact it is invisible – the beauty that light reveals is not its own beauty but the beauty of what it shines on, and its usefulness is in what it illuminates.

So, Jesus says you are salt, and you are light.  Interestingly, not 'try to be salt, or try to be light' – both of which are of course impossible instructions, just 'you are salt' and 'you are light'.  As disciples – and it is disciples to whom he is speaking here, men and women who see their own lives as centred on following Jesus – as disciples, even as bumbling, accident-prone, not very brave and occasionally self-centred disciples what you actually are – is salt and light.  Why?  Well, it's not a compliment, but as disciples you make a difference, you transform the environment around you, and Jesus is telling us that we need to be intentional about that.  There is nothing supernatural or especially spiritual about this – women and men who are sure about what they believe and who quietly order their lives around what they believe have an effect on those around them.  There is a negative version of this, as well as a positive version – the advertising industry for example works on the principle that consumerist desire is infectious.  Jesus is also infectious – the values of the reign of God that Jesus teaches and lives are infectious but like a grain of salt thrown into a super-concentrated solution that precipitates mass crystallisation there needs to be a catalyst and you – disciples – are it.

But there is a warning here.  If we can't help but be salt, and to salt up the people around us – if we can't help but be light and to reveal things around us – then we do need to be intelligent and aware in case we do more harm than good.  'What if the salt loses its flavour?', Jesus asks – rhetorically, one hopes.  It can't, of course, NaCl is NaCl, it tastes like salt.  You can't literally be unsalty salt – but you can be out of balance salt, you can be the rising salinity that destroys the earth or the excess of salt that ruins the flavour of a meal and contributes to hypertension.  You could be the salt of argumentativeness or rigid insistence on dogma or unattractive fundamentalism that poisons the water of the Spirit from which those around you need to drink.  You could be the salt of intolerance or hypocrisy that so many people have found and been harmed by in the Church.  Don't be salt like that.  Be the intelligent, good-humoured salt that knows it is tastiest and most useful in small doses, that brings out the flavour in others.  You get the idea?  Salt when it is most useful doesn't draw attention to itself, it serves others and it subtly enhances but never overwhelms.  Be humble, useful salt.

'What if the light is hidden under a container?, Jesus asks, still in rhetorical mode.  The light he is thinking of is a candle, or maybe an oil lamp.  We have candle-snuffers here, a little brass hood on the end of a staff that we use at the end of the service to – put the candle out.  Not only does the light hidden under the container fail to illuminate anything around it – it goes out.  It stops being light.  Because an enclosed flame runs out of oxygen.  If your light is just for yourself, then you soon find yourself in darkness.  If you are a light – and as a disciple you are, because you can't help revealing something about the world around you – then you are made to shine.  And you can only shine if you get yourself out there into some open space with some good clear oxygen and something to shine on.  And you need fuel.  You need the oxygen of the Holy Spirit and the humble candlewax of perspiration – some effort, in other words: learning, service and prayer.

One last point.  These metaphors are homely, they are simple and common and inexpensive.  Jesus loves metaphors like this – he talks about weeds, and wheat, and fish and oil and bread and water.  Being a disciple is not rocket science, it is just about being real, and about being available.  People often make a mistake about this, and they want the truth to be esoteric or mystifying and hifalutin.  St Paul is struggling against something like this, in the passage we just read from his letter to the Corinthian Church.  It seems they didn't think he was fancy enough.  After he left Corinth people began to express scepticism about his message. They complained that he had provided no arguments and that he had no particular status in the world. The same seemed to be true of the Jesus he proclaimed.

And Paul agrees.  Like the mythological pastor who comes to church one Sunday morning to find a petition doing the rounds asking for his removal because he isn't holy enough, he isn't good enough or wise enough for that congregation – so of course the pastor gets his hands on that petition and signs it.  Paul agrees with all the charges levelled against him.  He doesn't defend himself with skilled argument and he doesn't try to convince his fractious church at Corinth that he is better than they think, or that Jesus is more important than they think.  And he tells them the Jesus that he proclaims is the crucified one, the one put to death in the most shameful way imaginable.  You can't get a lower status than that, and Paul agrees: his message is 'a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles'.

But then makes this astounding claim: that God's wisdom is the reverse of human wisdom.  It is what is humble and small in the world that reveals God.  It is what is despised and held to be of no account in the world that most truly reflects the glory of God.  The wisdom of discipleship is not about being successful, or devastatingly clever, it is not about having the right words or the best arguments, in fact, it is not even about being right.  It is about being humble and available, it is about service, and it is about being in love.  Be salt and light, for the world around you.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

4th Sunday after Epihany

On Friday, I was privileged to represent Anglican EcoCare by giving evidence at the Senate inquiry into the government's proposed changes to the carbon pollution reduction legislation, the so-called 'carbon tax' which the Abbott government plans to replace with a 'direct action plan' of paying businesses to reduce their carbon emissions.  Bishop Tom and I sat in the hearing room and listened to representatives of the WA Wilderness Society before it was our turn to give evidence – the Senators listened politely as we told them that right from the beginning of the Hebrew Bible the scriptures tell us that the Earth and all its goodness belong to God,[1] that in the language of Franciscan spirituality every created thing and all the living systems of the Earth are unique creative expressions or Words of God, and reflect the beauty of their Creator.  We told them that the protection of the environment is part of the core mission of the Church, and reminded them that when the Earth suffers, whether through climate change or the extinction of species, through loss of natural habitat or the degradation of water or soil – then inevitably the impact is felt hardest and heaviest by the poorest of the world's poor.  We were listened to politely, and we answered questions – some sympathetic and others less so.  What was most clear to me was that to speak of the vulnerability of God's creation and the need to care for it – even though to care for the Earth is ultimately in our own best interest – instantly evokes a hostile reaction from self-interested power and privilege.

But when I sat down yesterday to write this sermon, the words of the prophet Micah jumped off the page at me.  In fact, all the texts this morning do nothing less than turn our understanding of the world upside down.  And the power comes from the outpouring of God's goodness and beauty that we call creation.  Because it is in the act of creation that God offers hospitality and opens a place in God's own life for others.  In our reading from Micah we see the Hebrew tradition of profound respect for creation – here the prophet is acting as a sort of clerk of the court, reading out the indictment in a divine lawsuit against God's people.  But the truly stunning thing is the jury – who is it that listens and bears witness as the list of charges are read out? – the mountains and hills and the foundations of the Earth.[2]  The image is one of timeless impartiality – creation bears witness to what is done to it, and no amount of spin-doctoring and no special pleading from vested interests make a jot of difference.  This image comes from the unique Hebrew understanding of the relationship that human beings have to the land – the Earth and all its resources are not commodities to be bought and sold, not goods to be owned, because the Earth itself belongs to God. 

In the prophet Micah the land itself indicts the people with injustice, with the centralisation of land ownership that deprives the poor of a just living, and with corruption.  And the prophet tells the political elites – paying lip service is not enough, God isn't interested in your religious rituals or your pious platitudes – what God requires of you is just this – to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.[3]  The words are powerful – the Hebrew for kindness is not quite so bland as the English, the word hesed means covenant loyalty and mercy and care.  The English word humble is also powerful, deriving from humus, meaning of the earth, grounded.  But the main point — and the challenge — is to move from business as usual and the following of social norms or the weasel words of lawyers to practising justice, looking at the world through God's eyes and doing what is right.

It's a distinction that can often be overlooked in the Church, and Paul's letter to the Corinthians is a case in point.  The Church in Corinth, to put it bluntly, was full of people who took themselves a lot more seriously than they took God.  As one commentator puts it, 'they expected God to submit to their criteria'.[4]  And Paul reminds them that it's the other way around – it is God's holiness that provides the standard by which we are judged.  Paul strips away the self-serving illusion of human criteria using the language of paradox: 'For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God'.[5]  In the Aussie vernacular he is basically telling them to get over themselves.  Don't fall into the trap of mistaking human institutions – church or government – as ultimate authorities because it is this that leads to discrimination, violence, economic inequality, war, and ecological meltdown.  Our human standards and criteria are always partial.  We fall too easily into mistaking self-interest for what is right.  And Paul reminds them of the one who models the way to go beyond self-interest, and who in putting love for others ahead of love of self taps into the logic of self-giving love that is the power of God: 'For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength'.[6]

It's a good lesson for a world that has exalted the technological fix and the morality of free market capitalism, not to mention a level of military power never before seen in human history.  The Earth, that is God's, the Earth that human beings have stripped and exploited and thought we had conformed to our own priorities – the Earth says 'enough'.  I read recently a beautiful little saying called Stein's Law: 'If something can't go on forever', said Stein, 'then it will stop'.  We forget this, in our obsession with economic growth and the built-in competitiveness and the quest for material security that drives our human culture.  What God requires of us is not to give lip service, not tokenism but repentance and justice, and the humility of remembering that we ourselves are creatures of the Earth.  The human community that lives within its true bounds is the one that lives by standards considered 'foolish' by the kingdoms of the world.  And Paul says this is the human community that models itself on the way of the cross.

Jesus makes it clearer as in our reading from St Matthew this morning he climbs the mountain and sits to teach the people who have come to hear him.  The beginning of the sermon on the mount are the beatitudes – the summary of Jesus' wisdom teaching.  The mountain, that in Micah acts as a mute witness here offers a space for both teacher and learners to come away from the everyday in order to see more clearly what the life of everyday really means. Sometimes translated as 'happy', the 'blessed' sayings declare God's favour for particular human virtues or by describing what it means to live as an ideal faithful community challenge the actual community's practices.  The 'blessings' of Jesus are not vague promises that when things go wrong for us God will put them right, but sharp reminders that we are to live as a blessed community.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Many Christians have seen in this a sort of escape clause – oh, Jesus says you don't need to be literally poor, just poor in spirit!  But Jesus never waters anything down, in fact he makes it more radical.  Blessed are the ones who are literally marginalised, oppressed, chronically or terminally ill.  Blessed are the ones whose very spirit is crushed, those who have no hope.  Blessed are those who stand in solidarity with the poorest of the earth's poor. And blessed are those who choose poverty, who recognise the proper limitations on their use of the Earth's resources. This blessing, according to one commentator, names the ending of human structures of power, by the initiative of God. 

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.  It says something interesting that meekness these days is not considered a virtue but is caricatured as passive incompetence.  Meekness here suggests courage and patient hope as well as grounded humility that Jesus promises will eventually trump all the strident paraphernalia of human power.  To be meek is related to the quality of hesed or covenant solidarity that we came across in Micah. To be meek is to learn to live in harmony with the quiet insistent rhythms of the Earth and its living creatures.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Again, not an escape clause or a watering down but a challenge.  Jesus is just talking about piety.  Physical hunger and thirst imply a hunger and thirst for justice, because where human beings anywhere live in situations where the basic means of life are denied, then human life everywhere is deprived of dignity and justice.  Either all human life is sacred and precious, or none is.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to yearn with a physical longing for a world in which right prevails.  Jesus is laying down the guidelines for the blessed life, and we find that the ways we actually live are challenged.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  It was the common fate of the prophets, and of the apostles who spread the message of the gospel across the ancient world.  But actually it goes with the common territory of telling the truth.  Truth-telling offends power, when it insists on naming injustice.  But to live the blessed life, to live as a blessed community, is to choose to live as a community that recognises and lives by the truth.

To live as the blessed community — as the community of solidarity and humility, of yearning and of truthfulness — is to live intentionally into the rhythm of God's own life, the ecology of self-giving love that connects us with the cycle of creation and reveals to us finally the deepest truth of our own selves.

[1] Ps 24.1

[2] Mic 6.1-2

[3] Mic 6.8

[4] Hans Conzelman, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47

[5] 1 Cor 1.22-24

[6] 1 Cor 1.25