All of our scripture readings today have something in common. Although each is speaking to a different context, they all have something to do with the new identity that comes with becoming a permanent resident in the commonwealth of God. Micah challenges the assumptions of a religion dominated by a focus on ritual sacrifice. Jesus turns the values of the world upside down. And Paul elaborates on the theme that down is the new up.
I emailed Michael Shapcott this week to see if he would be willing to read the gospel today. He responded almost immediately, saying yes, he would be willing to read the Beatitudes, but he wanted to use the Common English Bible translation. I have a shelf in my study with at least 15 different English translations or versions of the Bible, not counting Bibles in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, Swahili and Polish. But I don’t have a copy of the Common English Bible. I told Michael that I would prefer that the version in the bulletin match the version proclaimed from the lectern, and so you have it in front of you. The first thing you notice is that each beatitude begins with the word ‘happy.’ That was not a surprise, as the Jerusalem Bible did the same in 1966. The speed bump for me was the continuation of the first beatitude: “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” We are accustomed to hearing “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” aren’t we? I have to admit that I never felt I really knew what “poor in spirit” meant until I encountered this new translation. Now it makes sense. Someone who is poor in spirit is someone who is ‘dispirited,’ and someone who is dispirited is someone who has lost hope. “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” They are permanent residents in the commonwealth of God.
Hopelessness and grief are likely to be part of everyone’s experience at some point or another. And Jesus reassures his listeners that there is life beyond hopelessness and death. Don’t allow hopelessness and grief to swallow you up and drag you under. On the other hand, humility, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, showing mercy, having pure hearts, and making peace require acts of will, and are among the hallmarks of the new identity that Jesus invites his followers to embrace. A first step to healing the cosmos is to make these beatitudes a part of our spiritual practice.
For the last year and a half the 9:00 AM Bible study has used Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, as our guide. His chapter entitled “A New Identity” is a reflection on the Beatitudes. He notes that Jesus’ words come as a surprise because “we normally play by these rules of the game:”
Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.
The new identity that Jesus offers, the identity that offers blessing or happiness will, as McLaren puts it, “give us a very important role in the world. As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change. Like salt that brings out the best flavours in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society.”
It should come as no surprise that we find seeds of the Sermon on the Mount in the Hebrew scriptures. In Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses going up the mountain. There are parallels to events in Exodus: deliverance from a ruler who orders the death of male children, entry into covenant with God by passage through water, and a period of testing and temptation in the wilderness. In Luke, when Jesus begins his public ministry, he identifies with God’s servant in Isaiah , who has been sent “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; … to comfort all who mourn….”— characteristics that are echoed in the Beatitudes.
The prophet Micah challenges the religious status quo of his time. The ostensible purpose for ritual sacrifices in Judaism was to effect reconciliation with God. Micah, acting as prosecutor in a covenant lawsuit, quotes the defendant’s questions: “What shall I bring when I come before the Holy One and make my reverences to the most High? Shall I approach with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Will Elohim be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, my children for the sin of my soul?” “None of the above” is the prophet’s response. The path to a right relationship with the Creator is simply to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before your God.” The tension between a religious system that required blood sacrifices and the self-sacrifice required to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God was still around when Jesus began his ministry. While there are some who see Jesus’ crucifixion as a culmination of the system of blood sacrifice, another way of viewing it is as one of the possible consequences when one does justice, loves compassion or kindness, and walks humbly with the Creator. Paul Nuechterlein, a biblical commentator whose work I follow, puts it this way: “Jesus transformed the sacrifice of the Cross into the self-sacrifice that leads to resurrection and a life of service.
In today’s epistle, Paul, writing to the conflicted church at Corinth, states that the “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Living as we do in post-Christendom, I’m sure we are all familiar with the characterization of Christian faith as foolishness. The classic proofs for the existence of God don’t carry much weight in an age of skepticism like ours. Although, I have always thought the fact that the Church was still around after two thousand years, despite some pretty horrendous human management, was some kind of evidence of divine intervention. Often, things that don’t fit our world-view may seem foolish. But world-views can change. Copernicus and Kepler bear witness to that. And so do Micah, Jesus, and Paul.
Jesus invites us to the self-sacrificing act of taking up our own crosses and following in his steps of doing justice, living lives of compassion, and walking in God’s company with humility.
I would like to conclude by sharing a bit of Vaclav Havel’s wisdom. First, a poem entitled “It is I who Must Begin.”
It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try —
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
but all the more persistently
— to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
— as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.
Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.
(Teaching With Fire, ed. by S.M. Intrator and M. Scribner)
In the scriptures we encounter people who are lost both by not knowing where they are as well as not knowing who they are. We may feel foolish or hopeless at times, but if we are doing justice, loving kindness, and walking by faith, we are assured that God will be journeying with us. Havel also observed that hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”