Monday, 25 February 2013

Calling Mr Meek

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth – Matthew 5 v 5

We talked last time about the need to be aware of the subversive, revolutionary impact of the Beatitudes. According to NT Wright the victory goes not to the wise or the strong but to those who are ‘small’ before God.

But what is Jesus actually saying here? He is clearly not observing things as they are. The meek do not have the earth. It is those who are strong and powerful who are at the top. You would not expect a humble or gentle person to be the Head of the Bank of England, President of the USA or manager of Man Utd! There are not many self help books on how to be meek. Just try searching on Amazon. One title caught my eye – ‘Secret habits of successful bastards – the self help people for people who are too nice.’ Says it all really.

Neither is this a fluffy statement about how things will be when we are all plucking our harps in the celestial clouds. Jesus deliberately use the phrase – ‘inherit the earth.’

It is really part of this statement about how things can be in the revolutionary new kingdom that he came to reveal. It is not a vague comfort for natural born Frank Spencers. It is meant for those who choose gentleness and humility because that it the best way to be. Christ himself was the prime example. Paul tells the Philippians that he did not consider equality with God something to be held onto but gave it all away in order to humble himself. That is what he is talking about here. 

It is the exercise of power v the gentleness of love. 

Martin Luther King once said – ‘Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

We will never achieve change by coercion. Many religious people have tried to make their world a better place – as they see it – by the exerting of power. To force people into their way of seeing things. They do not see that in doing this they are coming into conflict with Jesus’ message of non violence. We cannot coerce, we can only love. I have heard the American writer and speaker Tony Campolo speak on this topic twice in the last 20 odd years and his message is the same – To love, you have to give up power. In an exploitive relationship the one with power will control the one who loves. Love and power are mutually exclusive.

Blessed are the meek? Why? Because they are the ones who have learned how to love without conditions, without expectations and without imposing their will. So we move from  ‘how can I do what is best for me?’ to ‘how can I best serve others?'. From ‘how can I get rich’ to ‘how can I enrich others?’ From being driven by a need to control to a looking for ways to make others feel valued and significant.

It is as we do this that we begin to identify with the poor, the lonely and the sick. Religious people often have a problem with being vulnerable. There is a need to be right, to be strong, to have no doubts. It is not easy to accept that they are not Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way.

So in our relationships our aim is not to get our way but simply to be there for each other –

‘Piglet sidled up to Pooh
‘Yes’, said Pooh?’
‘Nothing’ said Piglet,  ‘I just wanted to be sure of you

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Food banks - a dilemma!

There has never been a time when there have been so many food banks starting across the UK. My own church at St. Luke’s in Liverpool is shortly to launch its own project in conjunction with Trussell Trust .

According to the trust, 13m people live below the poverty line in the UK. They expect to provide food for almost 1/4m people over the next year. This creates a dilemma. At one level it should not be for churches and other voluntary groups to be feeding the hungry in this country. When we hear of £40m wasted on trying to find a new provider for a perfectly well run rail service and £300m for state of the art court building to accommodate commercial disputes, we rightly question the priorities of our politicians. Surely it is the role of the state to ensure that its citizens do not go hungry.

So isn't the church just making matters worse by setting up these banks? Won’t the government see what is being done and say ‘there you go; we don’t need to look after the poor because the churches are doing it’? I would have no hesitation standing up to make that case. But I am also fully behind the St. Luke’s initiative.

That may seem to be a contradiction but ultimately we have to look at the bottom line. That has to be hunger. For Christians this is a mandate which outweighs almost everything. In Psalm 146 a faithful person is one who is –‘executing justice for the oppressed and giving food to the hungry.’ Jesus himself identified himself with those in need and described his true followers by saying – ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ And so we could go on.

So when it comes to this bottom line we have to place the provision of food ahead of everything, even our own political convictions, however reasonable they might be! So to support those most in need Christians will do what they have to do.

But alongside that the arguments should continue. The UK remains one of the wealthiest nations on earth – don’t let the loss of AAA status deceive you! It is not acceptable that anybody should need a food hand out. That has to change. The fact that churches are doing the right thing does not lessen the responsibility of government to write budgets that place the poor and hungry at the top of the agenda.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Looking for Mr. Blessed - 1

Matthew 5 v 3

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’

This post is based on one of a few talks I have done at St. Luke’s on the beatitudes; those very familiar statements from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Those statements that we love to quote but, often, have no idea what they mean!

Before we get going on this one we need to explore what the beatitudes actually are. They are clearly promises of happiness or blessing in response to certain values. But who is he talking about and when will all this happen?

One view is that they are simply promises of what life will one day be like when we are playing our celestial harps in heaven. So if you are ‘poor in spirit’ – whatever that means – don’t worry because one day you will leave this place for paradise. Now there may be some truth there but it mainly misses the point. Jesus made it clear that he had come to change things ‘now’. In the following chapter he tells us to pray – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth’. From the moment he began to teach he was beginning a process of transformation. In his first public statement he said –

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he finished by saying - “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4 NIV).

So we are not talking about a vague future. These promises are in fact part of a manifesto about how we should live now. Note how subversive these statements are. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek… That is not our experience. We are more familiar with – blessed are those whose numbers come up, who get to win X Factor, who are the front cover of Hello! These statements suggest something new and revolutionary – ‘Life Jim but not as we know it.’

Our normal worldview is inverted. These are not comforting words about heaven will be like. We need to read them as if we are revolutionary conspirators working to change the world.

So starting here; who are the poor in spirit? Is it those who are materially poor? It certainly includes them but suggests something wider. One great translation is ‘those who are bent down’. Those who have little or nothing on which to be self reliant. Those who are therefore free from our familiar weight of expectation. We all know this.

The ones who have the looks, the wealth, the fame, the material success have a far harder time learning to trust God and others. It is that trust which can lead to real peace. Jesus himself reminds us that nature does not worry about anything! So we are talking about a stripping down of the baggage to allow the essential ‘me’ simply to be and to trust.

The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr talks of a liminal space. Liminal means threshold, a place of emptying enabling us to move forwards into a new place.

‘Many spiritual giants have tried to live their lives in permanent liminality. They try to live on the margins and on the periphery of the system so they will not get sucked into its illusions and pay offs. They deliberately live off balance from what most of us take for normal or common sense. Think of the radical poverty of St. Francis, the inner city hospitality of Dorothy Day, the lives of almost all missionaries. They know that some kind of displacement from business as usual is the only way to ensure deeper wisdom and broader compassion.’

We need to remove our layers of security like the dragon scales that Aslan tears from Eustace in CS Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We are of course afraid of doing that in case we find scary monsters! In fact we find our true self, a beloved and highly valued child of God. And it is that child who learns to trust and not to live in a state of stress. And then we begin to see why that is a blessing!

But we cannot forget that a kingdom is also a community. As we learn to find our true inner self and the dignity that goes with it, so we begin to share that with others. As we free ourselves from the expectations that we lay on each ourselves, so we must lay aside the expectations we have of each other. By what standards to we value others – are they of our group, our faith, or political persuasion, our age group? That will ultimately lead to a very narrow group who deserving of our time and effort. But what if we stripped all of that away and considered everyone that we meet as being a very important person – not because of what they do but because of who they are?

Then we might begin to understand why it is good news to be ‘poor in spirit.’

Full talk and others available here -