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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Luke 6:20-31 When the Saints Go Marching In

In a certain town, a man walked into a bookstore to return a purchase. “It’s a Bible,” he said, handing it to a clerk at the cash register.

“Was it a gift?” asked the clerk. “No, I bought it for myself,” he said, “and I made a mistake.

“Didn’t you like the translation? Or the format?”

“Oh no,” the man said, “the format was clear and the translation was fine. I made a mistake”

The clerk said, “Well, I need to write down a reason for the return.”

“In that case,” said the man, “write down that there is a lot in that book which is tough to swallow.”

Sometimes it’s tempting to boil the whole Bible down to a few verses like the ones in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. This is an impossible task. There are some passages in the Bible that are tough to swallow. This is one of them. The burden on us is not to believe some astonishing miracle. There are events described in the Bible which stretch our credulity, moments which provoke us to scratch our heads in curiosity, but this text does not speak about any of them.

Jesus was speaking to those who were victims and oppressed. He is NOT telling them to roll over and play dead. His words are a form of non-violent resistance to oppression. All through the New Testament, Jesus showed compassion for the less fortunate of his society of his day-the same compassion he shows today. We as Christians are called on to show the same compassion.

This text is difficult to comprehend because the Lord describes the world in ways quite different from the ways we are accustomed to seeing it. The ones whom the world ignores are the ones who receive God’s blessing. The ones whom the world honours are the ones who are cursed. It is a complete reversal of the way we usually see things. God blesses those who are hungry for righteousness.

Jesus gives us a picture on how we SHOULD live. WE are the poor, the hungry, and the mourners. We are often poor in spirit. Our souls are often hungry for spiritual nourishment. We weep for those who do not know God. The key to looking at the Beatitudes is faithfulness.  

Jesus told people to find new ways of resisting evil. “Love your enemies” does not make much sense in today’s world. It doesn’t seem practical in today’s world where people often do whatever it takes to get ahead. It’s not very practical, not in the sense of getting ahead in the world or doing what comes naturally.

Some of you may remember the story of Matthew Shepherd, the Wyoming man who was brutally neaten for being gay, beaten because one man felt that he had made a pass at him. The man felt foolish and unmanly so he got a friend to help him put the young college student in his place. The two of them beat Matthew over and over again, tied him to a fence on a country road, and left him alone in the freezing night. By the time someone found him the next morning and took him to the hospital, there was no way to save him. Matthew Shepherd died as hundreds stood in candlelight vigil outside the hospital.

The two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried and convicted of the brutal hate crime. Proved guilty of first-degree murder, they deserved the death penalty in the state of Wyoming. But Matthew’s mother came before the judge. She asked the judge to spare the lives of these guilty men. Who can understand what she had gone through in all the agonizing months leading up to the trial? What mother could sleep with images of her beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and alone through the cold night? What sort of people could do this to another human being?

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.” When we hear these words, we should remember Matthew’s mother, her own life shaped by a Gospel deeper than hatred, stronger than revenge. I don’t know that I could do what she did. But we should see her as a witness to the power of the Gospel. Such love is not practical, but it can change the world.

Luke was out to prove that Jesus came to do away with distinctions that made some people think they are better than others. His is a universal Gospel-and the universe is populated by the less fortunate. Luke and Jesus are on their side. The rich had problems hearing and rejoicing in the Gospel because it told them to change their ways and share. This was bad news to them. On the other hand, the poor heard him gladly because of the message of hope and liberation. This is where the Gospel is vital and life-changing.  

Christ asks us to reverse the normal way of thinking and let our hearts and minds be ruled by blessing, loving and forgiving those who persecute us. As we do those things to others, we learn not to do them ourselves. The Beatitudes MUST be our attitudes. If not, why not? The Beatitudes call on us to look at our lives and accept the blessings God gives us as a sign of God’s faithfulness to us and return to live in such a way that we show by word and example our faithfulness and commitment to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to others.

On All Saints Day, we remember those ordinary people of extraordinary commitment. Saints are ordinary Christians whose lives reflect the life of Jesus. The Beatitudes call us to live lives that reflect the life of Jesus. In so doing, we become saints on earth. This will not be easy, just like it was not easy in Jesus’ time. He spoke these words to encourage people, and they can encourage us today. When bad things happen to good people, they must rejoice, because they will receive their just reward in heaven. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

We build on the foundation that the saints of the past laid by passing Christ’s message on to the next generation. To do so, we need to be ordinary people of extraordinary commitment as well. We all need to be counted in that number, like it says in the old song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  

We are rich materially and we are full materially. We might not think we are rich if we compare ourselves to professional athletes, entertainers or corporate CEOs who have more than we do, but we ARE rich if we compare ourselves to most of the world’s population. Our stomachs, closets, drawers, basements, attics and garages are full. Jesus is sad when he sees us make decisions that are contrary to what is best for us, for what he has in store for us. He teaches us to see the world’s sorry little treats for what they are compared to God’s heavenly banquet. The poor in this world will receive God’s blessings.

Our behaviour is a natural expression of an inward goodness. In other words, you do as you believe, and you believe as you do. Those who satisfy only their physical needs will experience a terrible spiritual famine. You take control of your life. Don’t let someone else or something else determine it for you. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold. You make your part of the world into YOUR mold.

Injustice in this life will be reversed in the next life. God will win over all the forces that take away a person’s humanity. If God embraces us, the world can’t take that away. To grow into becoming a Christian is, in no small part, to be converted into seeing the world as God sees it. It is to be given new eyes to look upon people and events from an eternally loving perspective. Christians have responded to the Beatitudes by becoming advocates for the poor. That’s why we have organizations such as the food bank and the Salvation Army.  

How do we share the blessing of poverty? Here are some ways:

1.      Celebrate the freedom, hope and salvation that is coming.

2.      Share our blessings

3.      Accept the forgiveness of those we have exploited

4.      Know that God has rescued us form sin, death and the grave

5.      Learn from the poor that there is joy in the Gospel-a joy for which we are longing

Jesus outlines what it means to be a Christian. Christianity is to work among the people and not from a faraway spot. That is why Jesus came down from the mountain to deliver the Beatitudes to the disciples-and, through them, to us. Our obsession with wealth tends to get our values out of whack. It deadens us to the spiritual rewards that will await those who serve God. It takes practice to change our ways and love the less fortunate and live the Christian life. When we die and fall to the earth, what energizes us is not our old self, but a new creation, eternally bound to God. Jesus is our higher standard, and the closer we are to him, the more ready we are to love the poor.

Happiness comes from within. When people look for happiness elsewhere, they are less happy, rather than more. If we live according to Christ’s plan for our lives, we would have a zest for living that would know no bounds.  

How should we treat our enemies?

One day long ago, when things were looking darkest for the free world, Adolph Hitler was addressing a large audience in Germany. In the front row sat a man of pronounced Semitic appearance. Following his address, Hitler came down from the platform, walked up to this man and said, “While I was speaking, you were laughing. What were you laughing about?” The man replied, “I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking”. “What were you thinking about?” asked Hitler.

“I was thinking about my people, the Jews, and that you are not the first man who didn’t like us. A long time ago, there was another man who didn’t like us. His name was Pharaoh, and he put heavy burdens on us down there in Egypt. But for years we Jews have had a feast called Passover, and at that feast we have a little three-cornered cake and we eat that cake in memory of Pharaoh”.

“Years later there was another man who didn’t like us.  His name was Haman and he did his best to get rid of all the Jews throughout the realm of King Ahasuerus. But for years we Jews have had another feast called the feast of Purim and at that feast we have a little four-cornered cake and we eat that cake in memory of Haman”.

“And while you were up there speaking, sir, I was sitting here thinking and wondering what kind of a cake we were going to eat to remember you by”.

The Jewish man had a point. We must love our enemies if at all possible, but sometimes we need to heed the words of an old Irish blessing that goes like this. “May God bless those who love us, and those who do not love us, may He turn their hearts. If he does not turn their hearts, May he turn their ankles so we may know them by their limping.”  

On All Saints Day, we remember that Christians are not isolated individuals who live in the world alone. We are connected. We pause to remember those who have passed on, but in whose memory we hold dear. We also remember their impact on us and our own impact as people of God on the whole world. Following Jesus involves a particular kind of politics-the politics of love. This is in contrast to the politics of our world today-the politics of hatred, supremacy and “me first”.

We show grace to others because God has given grace to us. Those who have been redeemed by God are able to be generous toward others. People who hurt us may themselves have hurts that are causing them to act in ways that they never would otherwise do. When we hurt, it may affect how we respond to others. The only way we can heed Christ’s command to love like he loved us is to surrender to his spirit. If we surrender our hearts to him and ask him to come into our hearts and love there, we can heed his command to love one another as he loves us.

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