A Sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner
When I was a child I went through a phase of reading short stories about Christians of the past… I’d save up my pocket money and buy bag of penny sweets and a slim volume biography that I’d read in a night.
The individuals in these stories were strong minded.
They were positive thinkers in the face of oppression.
They were decisive in praying for miracles when everyone else had lost faith.
In short, they were HEROES.
These stories were about saints who founded monastic orders that changed the global church;
who confronted pagan kings;
performed miracles feeding entire cities;
singlehandedly ended foot binding in China;
smuggled thousands of Bibles into underground churches;
converted dozens of prisoners in concentration camps;
They stoically withstood torture for their faith… even dying gruesome deaths… bravely proclaiming Christ to the last. These stories captured me. If Christianity was real, we shouldn’t be living boring or safe lives. 30 years on, I haven’t quite become the hero my 9 year old self was expecting. She might wonder what on earth I’ve been doing…. because it certainly isn’t the Christianity I’d read about. It turns out that I’ve discovered some problems with my Heroes of the Faith books.The vast majority of the Christians I have met, have not lived this type of life. And in fact, if you learn a little more about the individuals in these stories, it turns out that they often weren’t quite as super human as the books made out either. But the thing is, what we hear in our Gospel today – what we hear throughout the Gospels in fact – is that a hero’s life isn’t what Jesus intended for us anyway.
Our Gospel reading points to something very different. But isn’t an easy listen. Are you ready?
“Blessed… are the hungry, the weeping, the hated and dishonoured.”
“Congratulations” Jesus says “if you’re broke, starving, heart broken, or your reputation is ruined.”
It’s not exactly a compelling sales pitch. The PCC will shortly be presenting our new vision statement for our congregational life… imagine if they came out with this?… Would you want to be part of that kind of church?
This kind of story wouldn’t sell many copies to 9 year olds hoping for a vision of meaning and significance. If that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse… there is a message here too, for those of us who are experiencing easier lives. To those of us who have financial independence and enough food, Jesus says “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full”, To those of us who have material comforts that bring smiles to our faces, Jesus says “woe to you who laugh”, and to those of us who are well respected, Jesus says “Woe to you when others speak well of you”. The people who are blessed in Jesus’ world are the ones in dire need. And the ones who are in trouble, are those who are independently resourced, emotionally sustained and reputationally secure.
This teaching is the opposite of what you would say to create an army of heroes. It seems upside down, and difficult to understand. Shall we just ignore this bit of the Bible? If you think about it, this makes sense in life more than on paper. The times when we barely notice God are often the times when we have everything we need. And conversely, the times when we have experience a sense of connection to God…and appreciated the kindnesses of others… are around the times when we are at the end of ourselves.
So if we want to follow Jesus’ teaching here, what are we to do?
Particularly those of us who are not in a state of dire physical, emotional or reputational need, how do we follow Christ?
There’s good news in this passage for us. Just look at what the last section is urging us to do do.
Move towards those who speak words of hate about you.
Move towards those who attack your physicality or demand your clothes.
Move towards those who want your money.
Move TOWARDS the people who are in so much need, they demand things from you.
And don’t give up when their prickly edges prick you.
Does that sound like fun?
You might have missed the “good news” there. Indeed, there are commentators who suggest that this passage is all hyperbole, and Jesus couldn’t really have meant us to actually do this. What’s clear is that it is NOT saying that if someone in your life is abusive to you that you do nothing. It’s important for their welfare as well as your own that you do what you can so that the abuse is not able to continue.So what is Jesus saying?
You see that the Gospel reading is in three sections…?
What if the list of people in the first section of our gospel are the same as those at the end?
What if those who are desperately hungry and poor are the same ones who are begging or even stealing from you?
What if those who are emotionally desperate are the ones who are hitting you on the cheek?
What if those who are reputationally insecure are also the ones who are shouting words of hate at you?
What if the folk who are most needy in this community, the ones who risk-taking more than we can give, are also the ones who also hold the opportunity to live life most vividly and in a way that has space for God?
So how do we move towards desperate people?
How do we keep giving, even when we have been robbed?
I’ve seen a lot of people burn out and give more than they have to give trying to be Christian heroes. The answer to this question is the heart of the passage. It’s simply not possible for a human being to do this on their own. However, it really can be done in Christian community. Have you ever picked blackberries? It’s fun if you do this by yourself… but if you are a really committed blackberry forager, you really have to do it in groups. The best fruit is often over a verge. You take your life in your hands as you lean over a tangle of thorns to reach the elusive cluster of berries. The only way you can do this safely is if there is another (maybe even two people) grasping your other arm and acting as a counterweight. You are able to lean over far further than you would do otherwise and collect the bounty.
The heroes of the faith in my childhood books were independent, self-assured. Conversely, of the 64 references to saints in the New Testament, every single one is in the plural. Saints are never alone. Heroes have learnt to depend on themselves: saints learn to depend on the community of faith. Like swallows flying against the wind, when the one at the front loses energy, others step in. The real twist of this passage, is to realise that all three sections are the same people. We all fall into the Blessed and Woe and Oppressively needy groups, at different points in our lives.
At some point in your life you will experience the kind of desperation that means life can only be experienced as raw and honest. And those in this community with whom you share your need, will have the opportunity to drop the platitudes and polite distance, and be more honest and real with you. That is a blessing that takes us all closer to Christ… I’m not promising it will always feel like a blessing… but, trust me, it is one nonetheless.
When community like this happens, it is deeply attractive to those around us. We could keep growing and loving no matter who God brings through our doors, no matter how dark the turns of your life take. We could live a way of life that speaks of Christ to ourselves and to those around us. Does this sound like the type of community you want to build?
Today marks the start of a new season for us. As we’re almost in Advent, the start of a new liturgical year, I want this year to be marked by us deepening our vision of what it means for us to be a Christian community together. As well as being All Saints Sunday, today is one of our annual giving Sundays. This isn’t just about financial investment in our community but (if you’ll excuse the double negative) it’s not “NOT about our financial investment in our church community” either. Three-quarters of our worship resources are paid for by our business but we choose to keep a quarter of our resources paid for by those of us who benefit from it. Because we believe that our church is invested in by all of us. A community like this is worth investing in…
Whether we are currently living the lives of the Blessed or the lives of the Woes, we are all invited to build this kind of community here. To give our lives to it and to fund it together. Together we can build something that no one of us could do alone. Giving to this kind of community is the antidote to the boring, consumerist lifestyles that we will slip into without it. If we don’t have something meaningful to invest in, we will fall into focussing on trinkets or our own ego and we will never get close to the folk who really know what it is to need the Kingdom of God here with us, now.
Over the next few months we will be sharing more resources with you, to be more transparent about our finances and there will be opportunities for conversations about how you fit within this vision. I feel honoured to know a secret about the city of ours… At the very centre of London is a home, with the most loving, most accepting, most generous church family, where all are welcome. This family life is created and served and financed by ordinary people joining together around a shared vision of finding the life of Jesus here together.
The world is changing fast, London is changing. Who knows what physical, emotional and reputational challenges we will all face in years to come. We have the invitation to build a solid, committed community revolving around the life of Christ here… and to do that together. Try to be a hero if you want. Try to find meaning on your own if that works for you, but we can discover what it is to live like the community of saints here together. What will a community of ordinary folk radically committed to living as Christ lived here in 21st century London… what will that look like in 5 years, in 10 years in 20 years?… I don’t know… Wanna find out?