The bombers fly over. At this height, you can see that some are your Government’s air force, others come from one of the superpowers, Russia or the U.S.A., both, as far as you are concerned, as bad as the other. The noise and the dust when a bomb hits the apartment block next to yours is overwhelming. You utter a prayer of thanksgiving that, this time, you have survived. As soon as the drone of the bombers’ engines disappears, you sprint down into the street, looking for your brother, his wife and children. All are gone. Grief fills you like rushing water.
You go back to your apartment. Your family is there, thank God, but there is no water or electricity. The shops are bombed out, so there is no food. You pack up what you can, photos, documents, a few clothes, in a couple of suitcases and, with your family, start the long walk out of your city towards somewhere, anywhere, that it is safer.
That evening, you take out your tattered Bible and read Matthew 5:1-12. It takes a moment for you to realise that Jesus is directly addressing you: you, grieving the violent deaths of loved ones; you, with your nice life collapsed into rubble; you, without a home or a country you can call your own; you, you are blessed.
Matthew wrote his gospel for a community just like this. The Romans sacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70, killed many of the inhabitants, razed the beautiful Temple to the ground, and hounded the citizens out of the city. Jewish refugees spread out across the Empire looking for somewhere safer, the tiny group of Christians swept along with them.
Matthew believes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount applies to these shell-shocked refugees with no possessions or place of their own. They are blessed. Jesus turns upside down the usual idea of blessing. Normally, we think of blessings as things we have – family, personal talents, possessions, a peaceful life – but Jesus re-defines the blessed as poor in spirit, mourning, meek, lacking justice, wanting to make peace, above all, persecuted.
Being blessed, for Jesus, is owning your need. You are blessed if you know you need God’s mercy and safety, because God is present with love and protection. You are blessed if you know that you need to make peace with the world around you, because your neighbours too want to reach out and make peace with you. You are blessed if you know that you don’t have it all and God and God’s creation will provide for you.
For most of history, most of the world has lived in poverty and insecurity. 21st Century Australia, with our prosperity and peace, is an exception. Because we have so much, the power of the Beatitudes doesn’t register strongly with us.
I take these words of Jesus as an invitation, firstly, to enter imaginatively into the lives of the many who are fleeing danger, the many who are hungry, the many who have no shelter. They are more blessed than I am, according to Jesus: is there something I can do to incarnate that blessing for them? Can I use my power and prosperity to help provide safety, food, water, housing?
Secondly, I take Jesus’ words as a warning to me: in my comfortable life, I become complacent. I, too, can learn to see that I cover up my real needs with material comfort. I ask God to show my where are my needs, my lacks, my shortcomings, so that I can learn gratitude for all his blessings.
Over the last couple of decades I have lost my confidence in taking part in a robust debate. I fear that my opponent and I will not be able to learn from one another, let alone find a solution that benefits both of us.
I have different conversations about live sheep exports with my farming family and with my animal activist acquaintances. Apart from a vague desire not to be cruel to animals, I find it frustratingly difficult to get one ‘side’ to hear the viewpoint of another.
And to have a conversation on climate change with people who disagree with you is bound to end in shouting or tears; yet this conversation, perhaps more than any other, is where we need to listen to opposing views, to learn from them, and to find win-win remedies.
We are learning how Facebook and other social media divide us even further. They manipulate us into an echo chamber where we hear only our views reverberate around us. They disgust us with outbursts of hateful trolling which cement our dislike of the trolls.
Jesus has a radical prescription for a society divided like ours: ‘Love God with all your strength… and love your neighbour as yourself.’ The two parts of the Great Commandment come from the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and Leviticus19:18) and were familiar to Jesus’ hearers.
The Jewish teachers defined love not as a feeling, but as an active commitment to better the lives of others. On that, they and Jesus agreed.
But Jesus made two profound changes to the Summary of the Law: firstly, he linked loving God with loving neighbour so that they always come together. Love God and you inevitably love your neighbour. Loving your neighbour is a way of loving God.
Secondly, he extended the idea of ‘neighbour’ beyond the circle of family and everyday friends. For Jesus, a neighbour is anyone you meet, anyone near you. It even includes your enemy!
For many Jews, that was a challenge too far. How could you love the Roman occupiers? It’s an affront for us too: how can we love the terrorist who beheads a teacher? How can we love the drunk driver who kills our daughter?
Love God. Love your neighbour. In this volatile environment, the Great Commandment asks new action from me. Loving the neighbour who disagrees with me means taking the effort to maintain a strong connection with her or him, building a friendship on things other than our disagreement.
Loving my neighbour means being careful about joining ‘tribes’. I resist the pressure to join a political party, not because I want to reduce its influence, but because my joining will be perceived as taking sides and not being open to new truth.
Loving my neighbour means I take great precautions around Facebook. It is seriously addictive; and it is designed to divide people from each other. It may be that I should close my account.
Loving God means seeing the humanity in people who disagree with me. It means being loved by God so that I may have the grace to love radically as Jesus did.
For me to really get it, I had to be taken at 6 a.m. to the Post Office in Durham, North Carolina. The sun was up, and the day was already hot and humid. On the Post Office steps groups of men, about 30 in total, stood around, waiting. My guide said, ‘These are undocumented Mexicans. Some people joke that they are people who don’t exist.’
Eventually a farm pick-up truck drove by, pointed to two or three of the men, ‘You! You! You!’ and the men who were beckoned scrambled onto the back of the truck. Some minutes later, another truck arrived, and the same procedure followed. The rest of the men waited, waited. At about 7:30 a.m., the street began to wake up as workers on their way to air-conditioned offices glared at the men. It was time to disperse. Those remaining were unlucky that day.
These men were all desperate to feed themselves and their families. The picked workers would be given cash, $15 or $20, at the end of a ten-hour shift in the oppressive humidity of summer. This was day labour, southern U.S. style. I imagine that, 30 years on from then, day labour is still employed in much the same way.
The men were treated, not as human beings with needs, but as what they were worth to the employers. They were exploited.
Jesus tells the story of an employer who goes back again and again throughout the day to the Post Office steps, employing as many workers as he can, and then insisting on paying them according to their need, not his economic advantage. No wonder he encountered resistance – from the workers who had ‘borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’ (Matthew 20:12b), and most probably from other employers too.
This employer’s actions seem revolutionary. What he had done was to defy the economic realities which ignore the dignity of human beings. He treated the workers with worth and generosity.
Today’s news reminds us that Covid-19 has made many more people vulnerable, looking for a little work just to survive. Let us bear them in prayer and offer a practical hand to them when we can.
We also note that there are executives who ‘earn’ annual salaries of millions of dollars. These amounts cannot equate to value for work done, nor do they relate to people’s needs. Our economic system is currently not producing a fair society.
Eventually the world will get through this pandemic. Let us ask our leaders to re-build a world where people are not grudgingly de-valued, but where every person is treated with worth and generosity. We should encourage the Government to continue and expand programs like JobKeeper and JobSeeker. We should invite politicians to seriously look at new ways of caring for every member of society like, for example, Universal Basic Income schemes.
This is a moment in history when we should stop treating people just as expedient labour and build a more just and caring community.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and gold. The idea is that the whole history of the pot is valuable. The gold (or silver or platinum) draws attention to the points of breakage. The places of healing are important, and the scars are to be celebrated, not to be hidden.
Jesus shares a vision of the church as a place where the work of reconciliation is ongoing. When there is a breakdown in relationships between believers, Jesus lays out a pathway to heal the fellowship. First, try to reconcile privately, then in a small circle of witnesses, then in the wider church. Only then might the church take the extraordinary step of expelling a member.
This is not a series of ‘reconciliation tasks’ to be ticked off as an excuse to get rid of a difficult member, rather the opposite. This is a picture of people taking time, over and over, to heal breakdowns in relationships, a church where the healing is valued. This is a community busy with creating and maintaining fellowship.
Scars show and they are valued.
A constant temptation of the church is to be nice, to substitute niceness for the emotional work of ongoing reconciliation. There is nothing wrong with niceness, as far as it goes, but being nice is not enough to keep believers together through conflict and misunderstanding.
There are ample opportunities to get offside with one another; whether it is a personal dislike, or whether it is a deep theological conviction. Our prayer and our goal should always be to undertake the emotional work of bridging those divides and of mending those broken friendships in Christ.
These months of enforced distancing because of Covid-19 when we have spent less time in the company of fellow Christians give us an opportunity to reflect on our church community and the way it deals with fractured relationships. It is a time when we can resolve to foster deeper fellowship in what we do as individuals in our parish or community.
Each time two or three come together in renewed fellowship, Jesus rejoices, ‘I am there with them!’ (Matthew 18:20).
The truth is that the church goes on being broken, over and over again, and God weeps for it. And so, the work of reconciliation goes on, over and over again. We are like a kintsugi pot in that we should value the places where we have been healed and put them on display. We are unlike kintsugi in that the church’s work of reconciliation is never finished this side of the Kingdom.
We are the ones who are marked with a cross. We are the ones who are drawn to suffering. We are the ones who provide meals for the disadvantaged through soup kitchens. We operate Op. Shops to help them be dressed with dignity. We are the ones who nurse the dying in hospice care. We are the ones who accompany the grieving at funeral services. We visit prisoners. We care about the suffering of the Rohingya people forced into exile. We protest the treatment of refugees and send money to care for those in camps. We take our part in attempting to preserve wildlife.
Of course, Christians are not the only ones who do these things. Christians don’t have a monopoly on the works of mercy. But we Christians do these things because we are marked with a cross. This cross is not just a piece of jewellery or our logo. This cross, traced on our forehead when we were baptised, is a symbol of our willingness to follow Jesus in his suffering. We identify with his pain.
It’s not rational, this putting ourselves on the side of suffering. The rational thing is to avoid suffering. We identify with the suffering of Jesus and begin to learn solidarity with all people and all creation. We follow the suffering right through to its end and learn how character grows with suffering.
Jesus asks us to walk with him to Jerusalem. If we follow, we must be prepared to die with him. His promise is that, if we die with him, if we identify as much as possible with his death, we will be raised with him. Jesus is inviting us into this cycle of death to life, suffering to freedom, pain to release.
There is a tradition of beautiful painted crosses with two sides: on the grey side are depictions of Jesus being crucified and grim symbols of death. On the richly coloured side are depictions of the empty tomb and saints and angels applauding Jesus as he bursts to new life.
We are people of the cross, people of both sides of the cross. We identify with the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all creation. As we enter more deeply into this suffering, we discover, to our joy, signs of healing, love and new life.
Some people, usually young and internet-savvy, make massive money by making videos of themselves. Those with most followers may be demonstrating a skill, face make-up for example, or performing a wry diary of their world, or selling gadgets. If you follow Instagram or WhatsApp, you will recognise these ‘influencers’, people who command a following and change behaviour.
Others may have a real-world platform and have converted this into a large internet following. Barack Obama, former U.S. President, has 121 million followers on Twitter. Obama is a big-time influencer.
Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a cosmopolitan trading port. It had a strong Roman influence, reflected in the name ‘Caesarea’, and the Herod family had added ‘Philippi’ (‘Philip’s)’ after Herod Philip and to distinguish it from the other Caesarea.
Caesarea Philippi had previously been called ‘Pania’, Pan’s town, and in the time of Jesus the shocking rites for the god Pan were still celebrated. The ‘Gates of Hell’ is a real cave that played a role in these ceremonies.
The trip to Caesarea Philippi may have been Jesus’ lesson in influencers. Who can induce you to change your behaviour? The Roman Emperor certainly constrained behaviour. He is an influencer. The Herods derived their influence from the Emperor, so some people in Jesus’ time would be influenced by them. Maybe the Roman gods were influencers. Pan evidently had many followers in Caesarea Philippi. From the perspective of many people, devotees of Pan were seduced into behaviour that destroyed families and tore communities apart. Pan was an influencer.
Jews in Caesarea Philippi were influenced by rabbis and teachers. Their behaviour conformed to many rules and practices laid down by the Jewish leaders.
In the midst of all these influencers, Jesus was asking his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter is praised for his answer: ‘You are Messiah, Son of the Living God.’ (Matthew 16:15-17) Jesus continues to ask, ‘Who do you say that I am?’
On the face of it, Jesus is an influencer with 2.3 billion followers, so that’s a possible answer to Jesus’ question. But for Saint Matthew, Jesus’ question is not about number, it is a personal matter. Who do you follow as your influencer? Who do you allow to change your behaviour? Following Christ is more than naming oneself a Christian. Following Christ means rejecting the influence of others, whether their power is political or personal, and accepting only the influence of the Son of the Living God. Following Christ means doing life differently, attempting to love and care for the world in the way Jesus did.
Who is your influencer? To the extent that it is possible, the answer should be, ‘Only Jesus’!
Once upon a time, the good book tells us, heaven and earth, that is, God’s creation, had it all together. God said, ‘It was good… it was good, … it was very good.’ (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,25,31). The first account of creation in Genesis appeals to us and challenges us because we recognise that the world we know is not so good: it is marred, fractured.
We see the degradation of the environment, even Covid-19 is a result of the unwanted collision of wild animals and humans. We feel the rupture of relationships, our own and those around us. Ultimately the cause of this broken world is a mystery, but we can be sure that God means to mend and restore creation.
The Gospel tells the astounding news that we are part of this great project of bringing heaven and earth back together.
Matthew recounts how Jesus led the Eleven up a mountain. For Matthew, going up the mountain meant two things: on the mountaintop we experience the power of God, and secondly, on the mountain, Jesus, like Moses before him, teaches about the reality of God.
So we are there with the Eleven on the mountaintop to experience something of God’s power and to open ourselves, week by week, to God’s teaching. Like the Eleven, we both ‘worship and doubt’ (v.17). We are human beings after all. But our power to believe or not it is not relevant.
‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,’ Jesus states (v.18). The extraordinary claim of the Gospels is that the Risen Jesus has all God’s authority. We can be tempted to domesticate Jesus and turn him into a harmless friend. The reality, however, is that Jesus acts with power in our lives.
The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) was born to agnostic Jewish parents. From her childhood, she took seriously the teaching of Jesus to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. After a lifetime of activism loving her neighbour, she was drawn more deeply into the life of Jesus, experiencing his power in a series of prayer experiences. Weil’s book, Waiting for God, has become a spiritual classic. After reading George Herbert’s poem ‘Love III’, she wrote, ‘Christ himself came down and took possession of me.’ These experiences transformed her into ‘a great spirit’ recognised by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Our journey may not be as extreme as Simone Weil’s, but the reality of Jesus’ power in our lives shapes us also to be instruments of healing.
So Matthew reminds the Eleven – and us – of the colossal enterprise to which Jesus calls us: the healing of earth and heaven. We, the community of the faithful, are called to teach all nations his commandments, those of love and healing.
And the best of the Good News is that Jesus ‘will be with us always, to the end of the age.’ (v.20).
The cup and the bread are held up high so we can see and worship. The bread snaps as it is broken. The white circle lands softly in our palm. We caress the cup as it is handed to us. We taste the wafer and the wine, and the rich sweet aroma of the wine greets us as we drink.
Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell: five senses animate us as we come to Holy Communion.
And our five senses together trigger a sixth sense: that of memory. The heart of the ritual of Holy Communion brings vividly to mind all the hundreds, or thousands, of celebrations of the Eucharist that we have been part of. For me, they have been in parishes, in cathedrals, in homes, in school chapels and in the bush – everywhere Christians gather for the Lord’s Supper. Our memory reaches further back through generations of Christians to the night Jesus gave bread and wine as a presage of his death.
The memory of that night, the night he was betrayed, the night before he died, is strong, so strong that the events of the Last Supper reach forward into our time. We re-member Jesus, his disciples and his actions, and it’s as if they are happening here now. The scholars call this phenomenon of re-membering ‘anamnesis’– the very opposite of amnesia.
There’s a paradox at work here. The Eucharist is focused on the material of bread and wine, and yet its heart is the presence of Jesus with us. This presence is in fact an aching, loving absence that Franciscan friar Fr Thaddée Matura calls An Ardent Absence . Some Christians speak of the Real Presence, others of the memorial meal, but the effect is the same. When we touch the bread, we name it the Body of Christ, but we are not touching the actual body of Jesus; the bread somehow invokes his presence with us.
This is the Easter mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus Christ is both absent and truly present. Only with the consummation of all things at the end of time will the absence and the presence be drawn together into one ubiquitous and unambiguous presence.
This Easter most of us will miss the Eucharist, the touching, the tasting and smelling, the gazing, the hearing. At best we will have disembodied seeing through the medium of a screen. But in these times of quarantine and physical isolation, the risen Lord is even more closely present to us. The Psalmist affirms,
‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
And there is one rich gift, a gift of the Risen Word, which binds us all together. Words reach across the screen, whether in text like this, or the words spoken by a priest somewhere streaming the Eucharist. Because of Him who is the Word, these words have the power to hold us, to enfold us, to bring us into the presence of the Risen One.
In Busselton’s Queen Street, there is a statue of the Wadandi warrior Gaywal. You know the history of Gaywal and George Layman. The two men got into an argument at Wonnerup over the allocation of damper and Layman pulled Gaywal’s beard. In Noongar culture, this was a grave insult to such a senior law man. Gaywal retaliated by spearing Layman who died. In revenge, Captain Molloy, the Bussell brothers and a posse of soldiers hunted down any Noongars they could find and killed at least seven.
It’s sad that this is all history tells us about Gaywal – at least, as far as I can find out. Was he an effective bridge between black and white? Did he proudly resist the colonisers? We don’t know.
But the story of his end, killing Layman and being killed himself is well attested. The story fits a pattern that is described in this morning’s Gospel: if you feel angry and lash out madly, the situation will escalate into in the hell of violence, often in a flash of time: from Layman pulling Gaywal’s beard to the end of the killing spree was less than a week.
Jesus knows our humanity well. He recognises that all of us feel anger. He himself was angry with the buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers in the Temple. He expressed that anger vigorously, but none of the merchants was harmed. There was no violence.
But if we human beings fail to recognise our feelings of anger, two things may happen: One possibility is the explosion of violence like that around Gaywal. A Palestinian today, angry that his village has been simply taken over by Israeli settlers, may fuel his anger and end up in a suicide vest. He leaves behind him the hell of grieving families on both sides.
The second possibility is that we will push the anger down, suppress it deep inside ourselves. If we do that, the anger certainly won’t go away. It will fester and end up with hotly felt grudges. Sometimes, people will push their anger down and dowan, and suddenly lash out madly at everything around. Bystanders and the person themselves ask, Where did that come from?
Jesus, as our physician, diagnoses similar reactions to sexual desire. If feelings of desire are acted on in an uncontrolled manner, people are damaged, injured, sent to hell, the victims of violence. How sad the reasons that Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris are household names. Or sexual feelings may be suppressed, just like anger can be, and the poison that grows in that person may result in the abuse of children or women. Jesus names this too as violence, as hell, because of the life-long injury it causes.
Jesus expects us to be mature human beings. We prevent violence by acknowledging our feelings, rejoicing that being human is to be a feeling person. We name the feeling and then act on it appropriately: channelling sexual desire into loving our spouse and family, and channelling anger into fighting for justice. Being mature for Jesus means being thoughtful, mindful, about our emotions.
Just imagine for a moment if Gaywal had overcome his surprise and anger and mindfully offered his beard to be pulled by Layman a second time? Is it possible that George Layman would have reflected on his action, realised that he had profoundly insulted Gaywal and both men backed down? Imagine the power of that positive action, refusing to use power to injure.
There are times when it is appropriate to act like that. We are usually so taken by the injustice of situations that we, like Gaywal and most people, demand justice for ourselves or others. I call the alternative pre-emptive forgiveness. We say to ourselves, I’m angry. I may even be justified in being angry. But, in love, I refuse to escalate the situation into violence, so I am offering forgiveness even if the other person has not recognised their wrong-doing.
If we read further on than this morning’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus paints some pictures of pre-emptive forgiveness for us. ‘If someone compels you to carry their gear for one mile, carry it for two.’ (Matthew 5:41) There was no law permitting Roman soldiers to make you carry their pack. It seems they just did it because they were bigger and tougher. They were the occupation forces. It would be natural if you carried out the task as minimally as possible, pretending their pack was too heavy and dropping it on the ground, finding all sorts of ways to do what you were ordered in a passive-aggressive manner.
The result of your minimal obedience? The old bitter tensions between occupiers and occupied would just carry on, maybe made worse by this understandable reluctance. Jesus sees it as an opportunity for pre-emptive forgiveness. Why not carry it gladly, with good grace, and offer to carry it a second mile? How that would surprise the soldier. To be seen as a fellow-human instead of just a hated Roman.
Or another scenario Jesus paints, ‘If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other to be slapped too.’ (Matthew 5:39). Someone slapping your face is a special kind of violence. It implies not only aggression, but also a rebuke, a put-down. The slapper has put himself or herself above the person they are slapping, turning them into a child or a non-person.
It’s natural either to retaliate or to freeze. In response, you want either to be violent or to run far away. Jesus suggests another way, a creative way of pre-emptive forgiveness. Imagine the power of saying, ‘Hit my other cheek as well.’ You’re not accepting the slap; you’re creating a space for the other person to think again and maybe to apologise. There’s no guarantee that it will work, but there is a guarantee that if you retaliate, the violence will continue. If you freeze, the slapper has licence to go on being violent to you.
The whole story of Jesus on the Cross is about turning back the powers of violence on themselves: not fighting back like Resistance fighters against the Romans, and not ignoring the wrongs done to him. This way of pre-emptive forgiveness wins the day on the Cross.
This is what writers like the South African theologian Walter Wink call The Third Way: not fighting back and escalating the violence, and not freezing or running away, leaving an injustice unanswered. This ‘Third Way’ is operable to us Christians even though at first glance it may sound difficult. It is open to us, because as Lucy has said over the past two sermons: we are blessed, we are salt and light. God’s power and Spirit is already flowing through us. When we find a way to pre-emptively forgive, it is God’s Holy Spirit acting through us.
Our task is to use our imagination to enact this pre-emptive forgiveness. Each situation demands a different – and creative – response.
I invite you to see Jesus reaching out to you – his presence with us in bread and wine – and pre-emptively forgiving us. By his generosity to us, we are strengthened to pass that forgiveness on when people cross us. By his generosity to us, we are empowered to love.
This hymn was inspired by Moses’ experience of the glory of God when he climbed Mount Sinai. This is described in Exodus 24:12-18 set for the Old Testament reading for the Stigmata (in the Australian Third Order Manual).