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Theme for Sunday, 17 February 2019

Scripture for this Sunday: Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26 (beatitudes and woes)

It’s about 50 years since Paul Simon wrote a song called ‘The Boxer.’ It includes the line: “All lies and jests; still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” words that are even more pertinent now.  

Public figures seem to be able to get away with spouting nonsense at will – and many people just take what they hear at face value and accept it.  Why?  Because we don’t like to admit that we might be have made a mistake in whom we support – for example someone who is a congenital liar, or someone who deliberately skews information.  Similarly, at a personal level, we cling to beliefs and ideas even when confronted with evidence that we should at least reconsider our position – or admit that we might be wrong.  

This is related to the desire to be in control – especially when life throws at us things that threaten our sense of security (such as health problems, bereavement – and mortality).  So we seek to find a sense of control in other areas of life. We prefer to live in our own view of reality rather than in a world view that is different, or that suggests we might be fallible, or wrong. But we are all fallible and wrong. And in reality we have very little control over what happens in life: how much better if we sought to accept and embrace fallibility and vulnerability and ask ourselves what we can learn.  

This underlies the Beatitudes that Jesus placed before his followers: in Luke’s rendition, four sets of blessings, balanced by woes.  Jesus was adapting a formula used in the book of Deuteronomy, which has a list of blessings for those who follow the Law, and curses for those who do not.  It is all about the importance of learning to live in God’s way, accepting God’s values – which do not always align with human value systems, or the human desire to seek control.  

The message was not completely new.  The lectionary draws a straight line from Jeremiah to the beatitudes with the Psalm along the way, but nevertheless, there is a connection. The message of Jeremiah and the Psalm is about the importance of learning about God’s way, and trying to live it in our daily lives. When we do that, we are like trees with good, strong roots planted firmly in the earth. When we don’t learn of God’s way, we don’t have a good foundation.

This is a reminder that faith is about trusting in God and God’s ways, rather than the impatient and often self-centred ways and values of secular human society.  The beatitudes are about placing value in God’s value system, about seeking and expecting happiness and peace in it, and not finding spiritual satisfaction in human or earthly values that leave God out.

Remarkably few images of Jesus teaching the beatitudes pay attention to the words of the gospel: “He looked up at his disciples.”

The beatitudes are a statement of recognition of how the world is – and how God is. This is about complacency. Like the message in Jeremiah and the Psalm, it’s about being satisfied with ourselves. Going back to hearing what we want to hear and disregarding the rest, it might be appropriate to add or adapt: blessings on you who can admit your fallibility and keep an open mind in searching for truth; woe betide you who have to be right and refuse to accept alternative points of view, for you have had your reward, living in a fool’s paradise of smug self-righteousness.

It is important to understand that Jesus did not state the Beatitudes as prescriptive (do this and you will be blessed), but rather descriptive (this is the way God’s world is; you have already been blessed).  Jesus calls us
to recognise our poverty in relation to God and our need for God’s generosity, to accept the riches given to us by God in creation;
to recognise the gulf between us and God and our relative insignificance, and our need for humility, to accept God’s empowering spirit;
to recognise our hunger, in the broadest sense, and our inability to feed ourselves, and our need for God’s harvest, to accept the food with which God feeds us;
to recognise the sadness in our world, and our need for God’s consolation, to accept the joy and laughter that God bestows upon us.  

Beatitudes for the Church today might be stated in this way:
blessings on you who speak to God, you shall be heard;
blessings on you who are honest with God, you shall be forgiven;
blessings on you who open up your real self, you shall be loved;
blessings on you who long for change, your living shall be renewed;
blessings on you who put yourself in God’s hands, you shall be held;
blessings on you who long for a fairer world, you shall be given vision;
and blessings on you who seek God always, you shall be shown the way.

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