Rev. Teri Peterson
Matthew 5.1-12, Isaiah 25.6-10
5 November 2017
Isaiah 25.1, 6-10a (NRSV)
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.
Matthew 5.1-12 (NRSV)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Every year around this time I find myself drawn back to a novel I read several years ago. In it, the main character is a young man who loses his father, and begins to take his place in the family business—which happens to be the business of guiding people in their transition from this life to the next. It is a fantasy novel about our connections to those who have gone before, about how we remember and care for those we have lost, and how we understand death and life and love. I often re-read at least a bit of this novel around All Saints time, as it is full of beautiful reminders such as this:
“You must learn to see death as something more than loss, more than absence, more than silence... You must learn to make mourning into memory…once a person takes leave of his life, they become so much more a part of ours. In death, they come to be in our keeping, so to speak. They find their rest within us. Thus, in remembrance, we are never alone and neither are they.”
At this time of year, full of remembering of those who have gone on ahead and joined the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, it helps me to think of those people we have lost as in our keeping, in some sense. When we remember, they live on, their lights still shine, and we can still know the blessing that comes from having loved and been loved.
In the novel, the main character is given a watch that helps him learn to see the world of the past—the imprints of those who have been here before, the spirits of those in need of help transitioning, even the buildings of the past. When he stops the hands of the watch, pressing his thumb down on the dial, he can see that there is far more to the world than just that we perceive with our preoccupied human eye. There is another layer, or many more layers, creating something of an alternate reality that is always here, but rarely visible.
It is, of course, just a novel, a fanciful gothic ghost story. But I think the idea that there’s more than what we can see, that there is an alternate reality separated by only a thin veil—I think that’s one way to describe the kingdom of God. Jesus said the kingdom of God was here, close at hand, and even within us…but we so rarely see it.
Jesus described God’s kingdom reality in today’s gospel reading—a reading that is probably familiar to many of us, perhaps so familiar we miss that he is saying things that don’t really fit with the world we know.
It can be tempting to turn the beatitudes into something like the gospel’s version of the Ten Commandments—telling us to behave in certain ways in order to receive a reward. If we are meek, we will inherit the earth. If we grieve, we will be comforted. But these are not commandments, not if-then statements encouraging us to do the right thing in order to earn God’s favour later. These are descriptive statements of reality in God’s kingdom—the way things are, if only we will see and participate.
The word we usually hear as “blessed” may be better translated as “greatly honoured” or even “enviable”. In a time and a culture based in honour and shame, it would have been very confusing for the disciples to hear Jesus describe people in shameful circumstances as honoured or enviable. Then, as now, it was hard to see the way Jesus sees.
Given that we more often envy those who have amassed great wealth and beautiful things, what would it mean for us to look with the eyes of Christ, and see those who are not just poor, but poor in spirit—lacking both physical and interior resources—as enviable? Jesus says “they are the ones who make up the kingdom of heaven.” More often than not they are pushed out of our kingdoms, overlooked, turned back at the borders, left on the streets, patronized…but in the alternate reality of Christ’s kingdom, they are valued citizens, whether we are willing to have them as citizens of our kingdoms or not.
Can we even imagine a world where we honour the peacemakers and the meek, the ones who use their energy and their talents and their money to create wholeness for all, to seek the common good, to love their neighbour, do justice, work for reconciliation…rather than the usual ways we honour the powerful who so often turn to weapons of war and and words of provocation far more readily than they pursue peace?
Jesus speaks of those grieving so intensely that it feels as if grief has taken possession of their bodies, and says that God will come alongside, sit next to them and hold them in comfort. What would it look like if we were to honour the grieving, as opposed to wishing they would get over it and move on?
In this vision of God’s reality, we give the place of honour at the banquet to those who hunger and thirst for justice, for the world to be right, for a restoration of God’s order, not to those who have earned top marks in their class or climbed the corporate ladder or worn the best dress or made the best movie.
Remember that Jesus and the disciples had just been with the crowd of people seeking healing from diseases, pain, seizures, and all kinds of maladies. And the crowd was not just the people who were ill, but also their family and friends who longed for relief for their loved one as well as themselves. These are the people Jesus saw with eyes very different from our own.
And so Jesus takes the disciples up the hill, where they can still see the crowd, and describes for them an alternate reality—the kingdom of God, where honour and shame don’t play the same roles they do in our earthly kingdoms. In God’s vision, our concern is for the whole community, and we seek the good of our neighbours, we sit down beside them rather than having power over them, and we see that the right order for all relationships begins with God’s grace and flows through love. In this alternate reality, no one is alone, no one is hungry, no one lives with injustice or pain. As the prophet Isaiah described it, on this mountain God is so close at hand that God sits down beside us and wipes away every tear rolling down our cheeks, takes away shame, and spreads out a feast at a table longer than the eye can see.
Every so often, we get a glimpse of this kingdom. In the lives of faithful people we have known, in the love of friends and strangers, in the chance to help or to be helped. But what we really need, like the character in the novel, is something that can help us as we learn to see. He had his watch, though gradually he was able to see without it. What do we have that can offer us a window into the kingdom, so we can practice living in the truth of God’s reality in our midst?
One crucial tool is the scriptures—where we can return, over and over, to the descriptions of God’s reality, until we begin to see it everywhere we look, even when we are away from this building or away from our church family. When we let the word take root in us, it will have a way of showing us things we would not otherwise see, right alongside this world we inhabit every day.
The words of the liturgy can be like touching the watch, too…they let us see the world as it truly is when we say “heaven and earth are full of your glory” or “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
And, of course, the communion table. When we gather around the table and receive the bread and wine, Calvin says we are lifted up to the heavenly banquet—we are given a peek into God’s real world, so ably described by the prophet: a table set with enough for everyone, people gathered from every corner of the earth, even people we would never invite to dinner in our homes, all celebrating the gift of God’s abundant life. At the table, we can taste and see that God is good. In the breaking of bread, our eyes are opened and we recognise Christ in our midst. Every time we eat and drink, we remember, and the life of Christ becomes a part of our own lives. It is a far more reliable thing than any pocket watch for helping us learn to see the great cloud of witnesses with us at every table, to see the people closest to God’s heart in our neighbours, and to see the reality of God’s love in places we would never expect.
All these are not an end in themselves, but rather a gift that we can use to see. Once we have seen, we can then seek to live ever more fully in the reality of God’s kingdom, acting as if it is coming on earth as it is in heaven—because it is. And little by little, in the faithfulness of ordinary people, the world will be transformed, until all will know the truth that sets us free: that we are loved, whether we think we deserve it or not, and whether we think they deserve it or not, more deeply than we can possibly imagine.
May it be so.