Motivational speakers are in demand. People will pay to hear them speak and in some cases high fees. They can lift the mood of their audience and send them out feeling that they can take on the world, or at least rise to whatever challenge is facing them or they are struggling with. It is a gift that can change the psychological outlook and bring the possible to what feels impossible. The best ones do more than just give a buzz, they actually do give people tools to reframe how the world looks and so their message will last longer than the passing moment and emotional high. Some will even make you think, send you away puzzling on what sounds utterly ridiculous but deep down you know is on to something – a kind of brain worm, which acts like an ear worm, a tune you can’t get out of your head but in this case it’s a challenging thought. Today, our gospel reading gives us Jesus the motivational speaker (Luke 6:17-26).
And what he has to say is a brain worm. It sounds odd but you can’t get it out of your head and countless people through the generations have found the Beatitudes inspirational. The world is turned upside down. The ones who look cursed are blessed. The ones who look as though life couldn’t be better are doomed. It is a ‘you what?’ moment in the gospels and Monty Python caught it well in their scene in The Life of Brian where those at the back of the crowd don’t catch it correctly, mishear and think Jesus is blessing the cheese-makers, rather than the peace-makers. It is hard to hear what you are not expecting to hear or even goes against the grain. The mind has to be prepared so it is ready to hear it. I had one of those experiences the other day when someone I was talking to just couldn’t hear what I was saying. He thought the prayer I used before a play in the Cathedral had actually been written by Shakespeare, not by me, which was flattering, but really, no. We were born in the same town, but that’s as far as it goes.
Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, those who weep, the hated, defamed, excluded, the scorned and the abused. If that has ever been your experience, if it is now for some reason, it does not feel like a place of blessing. It’s a pit and can feel a very deep pit where the sunlight has difficulty reaching. And it is into this dark and damp place, this place of exclusion, that Jesus reaches with blessing and hope. It is a promise of fortunes being transformed. All is not lost and there is a brighter day ahead. God does not abandon the oppressed and this was a radical message for a time when fortune was seen as being synonymous with blessing. The blessed were those for whom fortune had shone and the more riches you had the more blessed you were. Jesus turns this on its head and says we need to look deeper than the shiny bling and fast cars, trappings of apparent success. What he offers is hope because it endures and touches the root of life’s purpose and point.
We can also show this blessing now by how we regard those who are weighed down with troubles and struggle. I was talking with a former service user of Garden House this week – the day facility for the homeless. He referred to it as being “a place of peace amongst the chaos”, a place that “changes lives”. And it changes lives in two directions. It walks, even sits, alongside those who can’t fall any lower than where they are now and displays the love of Christ to them. This love changes them, fills them with a sense of purpose and hope, and lives change. When lives struggle in a dark place, light comes through those who radiate Christ’s love in action. It also changes those who volunteer and many are talking about the affect this and the Winter Night Shelter has had on those who are giving from their place of comfort. They too are challenged with the deeper purpose and point beyond the price tags and trappings. When you have nothing life is stripped back to its core components and hope has to be real to mean anything.
This is all looking beyond where we are now, beyond the dark pit to the bright hope that one day will come where fortune is restored or bestowed. This can sound similar to view that Jesus is overturning. We are blessed when things go well, so the hope of future blessing is really trying to connect the future with now, bring something of the vision of that brightness into the gloom now so that it bless with hope. It can sound like the promise of jam tomorrow. What about jam today? The question that nags away in my mind, the brain worm, is whether there is a blessing in the state of being in the pit – poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled and defamed? For the last group in that list – hated, excluded, reviled and defamed – these come because of allegiance to Christ. So it is martyrdom, suffering because of witness to faith in Jesus Christ. There is a longstanding view that sees martyrdom not as victim but as victor. The stand for truth is the stand for justice and it is blessing because it is to be united with Christ in his suffering and his death. We are in the right place, blessed, because we are in partnership and union with the Christ, who is God among us and is taken, goes to the cross. That is a hard psychological shift to make. God blesses us when suffering for the sake of the gospel comes. We are beloved and in union with him, connected to the purpose and point of the universe in spite of and in contrast to those who oppress. This is one of those brain worms that take time to comprehend and see. It is to abandon ourselves into the love and hope of God in Jesus Christ, fully and totally, even to face suffering for it as we are united with him in it.
The ‘poor, hungry and weeping’ are a bit harder to link up with blessing. There are different types of poverty. One is relative poverty, where we see others with goods we would rather like to have and feel excluded by not having. In this one, the challenge is to decide what really matters. As with Mary Poppins’ Return, Michael Banks realizes that he may have no money but he has everything he needs in the love of his children. Counting blessings rather than gaps. But there is a level of poverty, experienced by far more than often realized, where decisions have to be made between heating or feeding, where basic bills don’t leave enough to survive on. This is grinding and destroys any sense of self-worth or hope. Where on earth is the blessing here?
Whenever we talk of blessing we are also talking about transformation. This is where God’s life and love make a difference and change the world. So the context of Jesus’ statement is his presence among them. God has come among them and that changes who they are and how they are to relate, indeed how the world is to relate. This is a challenge, no mere pat on the head. The Kingdom of God is theirs because God loves them and will not abandon them. The alternative is to long for oblivion. So rather than giving up, shrugging our laissez-faire shoulders, we are to work for changes where the interests of everyone are held to be important, not just those who hold the power and want to grasp more and more for themselves. The problem lies with an idea of who is on top, where life is always a completion rather than really being about cooperation and partnerships. Our success as a species owes more to how we bond and work together than it does to competition. Evolution is not just down to the survival of the fittest, but how we know we are mutually dependent and interdependent. So the poor are blessed because they are part of this interdependence and therefore part of the transformation that God in Christ brings. This is more than blessing to come, it is to bring to effect that blessing now and for all. Blessed are the poor calls for transformation and for values to be turned on their head.
Jesus motivates his crowd with the promise of blessing. When they suffer for what is right they are in the right place, the place he occupies and so share with him in his purpose and love. This blessing is to be lived and shown, it changes lives and is to change how we live together. The poor being blessed is statement and promise, challenge and calling. The Beatitudes are not just kind words, as with so much about Jesus, they recalibrate and turn the world upside down.
Sermon for the third Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, 17th February 2019