Sermon for All Saints Sunday 2016
A few months ago I stood beside the Lake of Galilee on small hill where, tradition says, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine being one of the crowd that day. Imagine hearing, for the very first time, the words of the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the bereaved, the hated and persecuted. Woe to the rich, the full, the laughing and the popular. And then those astonishing instructions to love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, give to everyone who asks.
What must Jesus’ audience thought when they heard those words? I was brought up in a churchgoing family so I can’t remember the very first time I heard them, but I do remember puzzling over them when I was nine or ten years old. The Beatitudes seemed to bear no relation to the real world, or even to the Presbyterian world in which I was being raised.
The message I got from my parents was that I should keep myself safe and not talk to beggars and similar dodgy characters. I was told that if I worked hard and used my talents well, I would be happy and popular. My mother was a child of the Great Depression and she saw nothing blessed about being hungry and insecure. God helps those who help themselves, was the subliminal message. Our parents were not materialistic, but they were certainly risk-averse when it came to the money they struggled hard to earn for their family. Flinging it away to anyone who asked would have been considered irresponsible madness.
So I heard the Beatitudes in Sunday school, and in sermons, and later I read them for myself in the Bible, and I thought, this just doesn’t compute. We are supposed to be Christians but we don’t live according to these words. Do they have anything at all to do with the real world? Well, it seems they do.
Take the famous line about turning the other cheek. When a superior slapped the face of an inferior in Roman times, he backhanded them. So I strike someone’s right cheek with the back of my right hand. That is how a master would punish a slave or a parent or child, in those days. But if the person who is slapped turns the other cheek, the left cheek, toward me, I can’t backhand it. I have to use the palm of my hand to hit you as an equal sparring partner. Turning the other cheek means putting me, the person who delivers the slap, into the position of someone who has to look you in the eye. You have ceased to be a victim.
Similarly, a person who took a coat from a poor person in payment of a debt was obliged by Jewish law to return it every night to allow the poor person to keep warm. But if you give me your shirt also, leaving yourself naked, you put me in the wrong. I have become an abuser of the poor, a transgressor of God’s law. You turned the tables on me.
Now in both these cases, the more powerful person may be shamed into better treatment of the other person. But of course they may be utterly shameless. We may think of people in public life who are in this category. They may happily slap the other cheek and rip the shirt of a poor man’s back. That is a risk the powerless have to take. But it is far better to take some independent action than to be simply a helpless victim. Sometimes a brave action can be prophetic, and may even have a far-reaching effect, on the abuser or on a whole community. This is even more likely to be true if a group of people offer joint resistance to injustice.
You probably heard about the action taken by thousands of Icelandic women this past week. They all stopped work at 2.38 precisely one afternoon and went out into the streets. This was to bring to light the pay gap between men and women. A full day’s work for a woman earns the same as a day that ends at 2.38 for a man, on average, so for the last couple of hours women essentially work for free.
I’d be interested to see what is the result of this collective action. It may be that some individual women got the sack for unauthorized absence. But they took that risk on behalf of the larger group.
Sometimes we can’t keep ourselves safe, secure and happy. Sometimes we have to take a risk. While I was getting those be-careful lessons from my parents – and to be fair to them, I was their child and they wanted to protect me – my grownup cousins were getting arrested in Alabama on civil rights marches and going to jail, singing freedom songs as they went. They were my role models of living according to the Sermon on the Mount. They showed me that it is indeed possible to take the Beatitudes seriously. How far more blessed, in every sense of the word, were the civil rights activists, even when beaten up and imprisoned, than were the people who turned on them with water cannons and tear gas. We live in a better world today because of their collective prophetic action.
The other night I heard the theologian Sarah Coakley give a talk at St Martin-in-the-Fields in a lecture series entitled “Who is my neighbour?” She spoke about the very thing that used to worry me as a child, Jesus’ so-called “excessive” teaching on love, whether in the story of the Good Samaritan or the Sermon on the Mount. She pointed out that current evolutionary theory suggests that we are hard-wired for costly cooperation. It’s instinctive in us to seek the greater good of our group, rather than just the best selfish result for ourselves or our genetic offspring. She called this inner compulsion a “trace of sacrificial grace” inscribed by God in our nature, fallen beings though we are.
If so, no wonder Jesus’ teaching continues to strike a chord in our souls. But she went on to say that this teaching inevitably has a political dimension. When a small group of people act prophetically and self-sacrificially, when they intentionally model the excessive love taught by Jesus, they can raise the level of moral response in a whole population. The poor, the hungry, the sorrowful and oppressed really will then be seen as our beloved and blessed neighbours. Those who are rich, happy, safe and comfortable will begin to be ashamed of our advantages that are so costly to others. We will realize that we are the cheek-slappers and the shirt-stealers.
But if a small prophetic group can level up a whole society, fear and hatred can drag it down. Woe indeed to those who can normalize the plight of the homeless, the bomb victims in Iraq and Syria, the desperate teenagers in migrant camps or on the mean streets of our own neighbourhood.
All Saints Sunday is the day for celebrating those who have been levellers up, those who have taken prophetic action and shamed the abusers, those who have put themselves at risk for the greater good of others. Some of them are well known individuals with celebration days in the Church calendar. But far more of them are people known only to their neighbours, and of course to God.
I invite you to remember today at least a few people you have known personally or in the news in your lifetime who have put the Beatitudes into action. How did they model the excessive love taught by Jesus? What did they risk? What was the result of their prophetic action? And how might we be inspired by their example?