Toorak Uniting Church

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Words from the Mountain

"Matthew’s Beatitudes"
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
2 February 2014

I would like to do something a little different in my sermons for the next six weeks and that is to consider each week an aspect of the Words from the Mountain which are found in the text of Matthew’s gospel from Chapter 5 to Chapter 7 and have come to be known by the title "The Sermon on the Mount". But I don’t just want to follow the well-worn path that these words are the basis for our Christian ethics and morality. Of course there are ethical reflections and moral injunctions in these words but I believe they are best understood as part of a much broader and richer narrative.

I honestly do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth wanted to place more laws, rules and regulations on his followers, who were followers of the Way, not followers of some form of moral perfectionism. His criticism of the Pharisaical interpretation of Law dominates the four Gospels. So that has to be our guide as we interpret this sermon. In fact, it was not a sermon at all, but rather a collection of sayings and teachings gathered together after the death of Jesus. These three chapters in Matthew resemble the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, a writing that did not get into the Canonical Bible.

The Beatitudes
These sayings begin in Matthew Chapter 5 with what has been called the "Beatitudes", a Latin word meaning blessing or merciful. The scene is set with Jesus the teacher seated while the listeners stand around him. And he elucidates the very essence of his way of being in the world. This is not rote learning. There is no point memorizing these words and then thinking that you have them. These blessings; these words of mercy, only have power when they have you!! When you are possessed by them:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Was he really serious that the poor in spirit and the humble and meek would inherit both heaven and earth? Well it sure doesn’t look like it when I look around the world today. But let me try another tack. Are the rich, the powerful, the aggressive and the arrogant doing any better? I have often quoted G K Chesterton’s aphorism: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

The most powerful thing we have is not a gun, a cheque book, or a political office… but rather it is an idea. Ideas are a kind of virus that take hold in an individual and spread to others, changing them as they appear. It was Albert Einstein who said: If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

Some may have seen the film the Railway Man recently. It stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. The story is about the brutal treatment of the prisoners of war who constructed the rail line from Burma to Thailand in the Second World War. It is at times a difficult film to watch, but it presents this absurd idea that a human being can be reconciled with his torturer.

The most important human currency is not money, power or privilege; it is love, hope, reconciliation, forgiveness and liberation. It is, at the end of the day, the relationships we have with those around us. That’s what will give us heaven and earth and that’s what will form and shape our way of being in the world.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Don’t try to understand it, let it permeate your inner life and do its beautiful work in you. Some years ago I started going to a two or three day retreat each couple of months at Tarrawarra Abbey in the Yarra Valley. I think I may have mentioned this before. They have a simple "office", that is they chant the Psalms eight times a day. When I began, I read the psalms as I chanted them and analysed the words as I sang them. And then after a few years I stopped analysing the words and just chanted them. The words that I needed to live my life by stayed and the other words fell away. I no longer needed to understand everything, but I needed to be understood by the words I was chanting.

Interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount
In the 5th Century, St Augustine began his book Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount by stating:

If anyone will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life.

That 5th Century view is unhelpful. While the Sermon on the Mount and the blessings of the Beatitudes have motivated great people like Leo Tolstoy, Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and a myriad of social activists throughout history, they remain an enigma and a kind of goal that draws us forward to value the vulnerable, the gentle and the humble. Maybe it is an idea that is planted in our minds so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that there are other ways to construct our lives and reality other than through war, rancour, riot and exclusivity.

I don’t want to finish this sermon without reference to the centre of our Christian faith which is found in these words:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

These can be big words that speak of war and peace at a national level. Or they can be words that speak to our personal relationships. I have often said that what we all need is to be peacemakers, not peacekeepers. Can you see the difference? The peacekeeper can tolerate injustice and indifference just to keep peace; to keep everyone happy. But the peacemaker is willing to disturb the status quo and willing to work to solve the problems that keep us separated and at war with each other.

I would like to finish with a "Beatitude", a blessing from the Irish poet John O’Donohue.

For Equilibrium, a Blessing

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what's said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.

From: To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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