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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 4, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 2, 2014

Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12

‘Love’s peaceful revolution’

Today’s message of the beatitudes is perhaps the most upsetting and challenging page of the Good News. The rich, the proud and the mighty are self-satisfied: they have what they want. They are shut in within themselves and with what they have. The poor and the suffering are not praised because they have nothing or are persecuted, but because the poor and the humble, the gentle and those who weep are aware that they have nothing but themselves to give, and so they are people who hope, expecting everything from God and from others. Let us be among them. God be with you ...

The poor and the humble, the gentle and those who weep are aware that they have nothing but themselves to give. We can take our cues from that today. And it can be a very positive thing to reflect on this Gospel as a practice in Christianity, in generosity, in spirituality, in terms of politics, in terms of discipline.

What we have is what we have to give. What we are is what we are given to be. Who we are is a people for-given, a people of the gift.

Is this what Jesus wanted the disciples, those gathered close to him on the mountainside and within earshot of the crowds, to hear and to heed?

You never really have nothing because you always have something to give be it support, friendship, forgiveness, understanding, time, comfort, patience, the shelter of safe company, community, joy, encouragement, honest thoughts and criticisms, love ... In the Spirit of God who gives all these good things, we are always already blessed.

Do we believe this?

I don’t mean to ask whether we objectively think that poor people and suffering creatures (ourselves or some other group) are the special concern of a heavenly being out there, up there, or one day. That would be to ask too little, and to miss the point.

“Do we believe this” means: Do we give ourselves wholly mind, heart and body to this kind of being together in the world? This kind of intentionality, for the sake of the world? Do we participate in this being-together in ways that engage intellect, emotion, experience and imagination? In ways that lead to action? Do we practise this kind of faith, which is really a kind of love? Do we, in other words, give real assent to the beatitudes as love’s peaceful revolution (Steven Shakespeare)?

As merely a personal question calling for response, calling into being a personal task, it is daunting. I can appreciate why Martin Luther regarded the beatitudes an impossible ideal (and why subsequent evangelical teaching has taught something similar). Perhaps Luther was reacting to ridiculously heroic accounts of saintly existence not to mention the ways that heroic spirituality tends to make others feel inadequate, guilty or worthless.

But as a communal practice, a Eucharistic practice even, it is the very Gospel itself. It is the way of solidarity and justice and peace. The reward, strikingly, is a present-tense reward (v. 12). The reward is in the practice, in the doing, in the prophetic witness to love, in the face of slander and persecution.

We can do that, together. We can be that, together. We really can. The reward is in the trying.

I saw a film last week called Her. It’s a Spike Jonze film, extremely well written, acted, constructed. A beautiful film. It’s set in Los Angeles I think, just a few years into the future. People walk around talking into their phones and talking to themselves (it’s hard to tell the difference, as you probably know). The film tells the story of a lonely man, a kind of poet, who falls in love with his computer operating system, an attractive personality designed to engage and to respond to the man to his questions, needs, hopes, and so on. The operating system evolves an understanding, a wisdom, even a loving wisdom. As artificial intelligences go, then, she is highly evolved.

It’s a moving film about human need and loneliness. And I was moved, though ultimately left to ruminate on a bleak and bloodless vision of the future. The love of the operating system, the philosophy it represents, transcends the world and the needs of the humans who created it and came to depend on it. There’s a tragic arc, a bitter irony, at work. As an analogy of religious life it is gnostic salvation is depicted in terms of leaving one’s body, in terms of having no body.

And love is not like this. I don’t believe so. I don’t give my assent to this kind of love. The love that saves is not a higher consciousness so much as a committed practice, a way to be together in the world. Love has not so much to do with the infinite space between the words we speak and think (a spiritual notion in the film, expressed very poetically in a highly-charged scene) as the risk, the event of a Word embodied. Love has to do with a Word made flesh with all the fragility and difficulty flesh entails.

I came away from the cinema, then, with some keen and new love for this community and for you (the references in the sermon on the mount are to “you” in the plural). Because the beatitudes describe a community like ours, wherein there is blessing and generosity, blessing and consolation, blessing and compassion, blessing and insight, blessing and visions of fairness and nonviolence. The beatitudes describe a community on earth infused with heavenly reward, open to the love of God.

Practise, practise, practise. Practice in generosity. Practice in mercy. Practice in spirituality.

The operating system in the film (her name is Samantha) says something I really like. She says that the heart is not like a box that fills up so that nothing more can be added to it. The heart expands, she says. The more it loves, the more it expands. A loving mind, too, expands. I do believe in the possibility of higher consciousness. As a believer in the Gospel, though, this higher love of the heart and mind is ever a deeper love, seeking out new ways to love others and to be with others, to embody love in caring and respectful relationships, in inclusive community and as a community of poets and priests attuned to the world of God’s making.

Is there a beatitude you might hear afresh today in terms of a dialogue, in terms of practice in community?

Yesterday’s Herald carried a story with the heading: “Great Barrier Grief.” The story is about a permit granted to allow the dumping of millions of tonnes of dredging sludge in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. How might that relate to the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled”? “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice: the kindom of heaven is theirs.” Whose voice are you given to hear? Whose face are you given to see? What kind of response in the Spirit of kinship?

Let’s read the verses aloud one more time before completing the homily together. Is there a beatitude you might hear afresh in terms of a dialogue, in terms of relationship, in terms of practice in community? Whose voice do you hear? Whose face do you see? What actions are performed? By whom? ... Amen.