Last Sunday was one of those days when God was busy during the sermon. I felt ill prepared, and was trying to preach across what seemed a tenuous link. The microphone was ringing in my ears, and I was so distracted that I nearly abandoned hope and cut to the end. But the congregation’s response was such that it was clear that they had heard what they needed to, regardless of what I may have said.
The request then came for me to try to make the sermon more widely available — which would normally be easy enough, but this sermon changed a fair bit in the telling. So, for those who asked, my attempt to recreate some of the sermon is below the fold. I’m not at all sure it will ‘work’, but there’s no harm in trying.
Epiphany 6: Luke 6.17-26
Usually, I’m thankful for our lectionary. It makes sure we don’t get stuck on our hobbyhorses, it means that we hear and thinking about the same texts as many other churches throughout the world. It is generally a good thing. But every one in a while, it lets us down. It takes a passage out of context, and if we are not careful, we end up missing the meaning. I think today is such a day. So I’m going to read for you again the gospel passage — as set in the lectionary, but with additional paragraphs on either side, that help to set the context:
[read Luke 6.12- 28]
As familiar as the beatitudes are, as often as I’ve read them, I’d never particularly noticed their context before — Luke’s context for them. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray. He spends all night with God — and at the end of the night, he calls his disciples to him. And he says — I want you, Simon, and you Andrew, and you — James, John, Batholomew… I want you to work with me. To bear witness to me. To share in what I am doing.
And then, from that heady night on the mountain — a night of prayer, and of calling — ‘He came down with them a stopped at a piece of level ground, where there was a large gathering…’ The people crowd around them, and power goes out from Jesus, so that many are healed. Then Jesus turns to the disciples and says: Blessed are you who are poor… yours is the kingdom. Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now…
The disciples are asked to follow Jesus, to offer themselves and to share in what he is doing — without reward, without recognition, without claiming power or authority for themselves.
The beatitudes are a lesson for the disciples, right at the start: this is what is asked of you. This is how you must live. And it must have come as a shock to the system.
Think about it — it had been a good night. They had been called. Chosen. They still would have been reeling from it. And then, they go down to the plane, and Jesus starts turning everything upside down. For the disciples, at this time, would still have been shaped by the expectations of their society. A society that said people deserved what they got. The poor deserved to be poor. The sick were being punished for their sins.
In Jesus’ day, poverty was not simply — or even primarily– about lack of material goods, but about social standing. It was a society that dealt in honour and shame. And it was a vicious circle– if you had nothing, you lacked honour. But if you lacked honour — if you were dubbed an outsider, or unclean– then you were cut off from the means to make a decent living. You could not find a place in the world.
And Jesus walks right into the midst of those who were rejected, those who were outcast and poor — and says ‘Blessed’. Blessed are you. Yours is the kingdom.
And the disciples had to learn what that meant. Their first steps in following Jesus took them into the midst of all that their society and religion told them was abhorrent — and they had to learn to say ‘Blessed’.
And that is how the church grew. Moving into new situations, and learning to pronounce God’s blessing.
But that wasn’t easy. If you think of New Testament Letters — they are filled with the struggles of learning to proclaim God’s blessing in unexpected places. Paul, through his own dramatic conversion, was led into the midst of the Gentiles, and found that God was there before him. Peter was taught in a vision to accept the things he had thought were unclean. But still there was struggle.
Paul and Peter pushed at a boundary — and the church said, ‘all right. We can see we have to let Gentiles in. We have to eat with them. But surely, if they are going to become proper Jews, proper Christians, they will have to change. They will need to be circumcised. They will need to live by our ways.’ And time and again, Paul said no. They are blessed. One can be Gentile and Holy. They do not have to become Jews.
And throughout the ages, the church has had to push at the boundaries, looking for blessing. Could it be that women were a blessing? blacks? gays? Boundary after boundary, looking for blessing. And sometimes the battle was fierce.
As it is today, in our own Communion.
Now, I’m going to take a sideways step here, to talk about what’s going on right now in our Anglican Communion. As most of you know, the Primates are meeting this week to talk about the future shape of our church. To decide what can be blessed, what can be included — and what, if anything, is full of woe, cursed.
And the battle is fierce.
On the face of it, there is the question of how the church responds to homosexuality. And specifically, whether there is room in the church for those parts of the communion who have pushed at the boundaries, and moved among gay people, and learned to say ‘Blessed’.
In 2003, the Episcopal Church in the United States elected an openly gay man with a partner to be bishop. Since then, they have elected a woman primate — who supported the bishop’s consecration, and who is clearly ‘liberal’ in her theology. And as she prepares to go to Tanzania, as the duly elected primate of The Episcopal Church, there are other primates, throughout the world, who are unwilling to recognize her. Some won’t recognize her, of course, because she’s a woman: they don’t believe that she is truly a priest, let alone a bishop, let alone a primate. But others won’t recognize her because they disagree with her. They don’t like her theology. She calls blessed what they would called cursed. And therefore, they refuse to sit at table with her. They don’t want to talk to her. And they won’t take communion if she is there — as a member of the congregation– since her very presence is seen to defile.
Now, I want to be clear here — I don’t like every decision that the American church has made. I’m not sure I would have voted for this particular primate if it had been mine to vote. But I do know this: she is the duly elected primate. She has been chosen by the church. She should be allowed to speak at the primates meeting. And it is madness to refuse to take communion because there is someone else present whose theology you don’t accept.
And even though I don’t agree with every decision the American Church has made, I would defend their right to have made them. If the church is to be true to itself, it must push at boundaries. It must be willing to go to unlikely places, and challenge cultural and religious taboos, and see what God is doing there. Even if sometimes it goes too far, or too fast, or gets it wrong — the church must go, and learn where it can say ‘blessed’.
I don’t know — no one knows — what will happen this week as the Primates gather. If primates are unable to share in communion, then the Communion is broken — whatever else is said or done.
But I do know this: if a split comes, and if we in Scotland are forced to choose, I would far rather be a part of a church that can push at boundaries– even get it wrong and start again– and pronounce Blessing — than to be a part of a church that is so sure of its own boundaries that it is quick to curse.