Just over a month ago, I returned from my first visit to the Holy Land.
I say, my first visit because having spent time in Jerusalem I am now filled with longing to return to that amazing city where faith and culture, history and hope are so compacted into a few square miles that it really does feel as if those medieval maps were right when they showed Jerusalem as the centre of the world.
I learned so much about myself in those 9 days and there’s lots of real significance I'll hope to share with you when the time is right – but forgive me that today it’s something wonderfully silly that I discovered on day 1 of our pilgrimage . Dahoud, our Palestinian guide, was showing us the overall shape of the city as we stood on the Mount of Olives…There's the Temple Mount, he said, and over there...that’s the valley of the Cheesemakers.
There was a stunned and delighted silence as we, a party of assorted mixed clergy, savoured the realisation that Monty Python’s Life of Brian had at least a tenuous foundation in geographical fact. We exchanged glances and then, quietly mouthed to one another
“Blessed are the Cheesemakers” "Ah. What's so special about the cheese-makers?""Well obviously it's not meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products"
That teeny fragment, of course, parodies those familiar moments in which, at the back of a large crowd, (or, at times, in a cathedral with a mischievous sound-system) you can hear just snatches of what is actually being said…none of which make much sense….but nonetheless you try your best to make up what’s missing.I think of it as Waterloo Station syndrome. Nothing you can actually hear makes any sense at all, so you write the script to suit yourself. So, “Blessed are the cheesemakers” becomes a handy shortcut that absolves us from trying to make sense of what Jesus is actually saying. His words are so often hard to hear in both senses....they don’t seem to reflect reality as we know it, nor offer an alternative to make our hearts sing. Engaging with them is neither easy nor comfortable. It feels safer to divert to comedy.
The thing is, of course, if you hear this passage while holding tight to a world view based firmly on personal and material success it makes as much sense as a blessing poured out indiscriminately on the dairy industry…“Blessed are you poor!” Jesus says – hitting home the promise that he made in the synagogue in Nazareth which we heard just a couple of weeks ago, that he has come to bring good news to the poor. Here’s that good news, delivered in a place where EVERYONE can hear, with crowds gathered from across Jewish life and beyond (the presence of people from the gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon making it clear that Jesus speaks across all our boundaries). Everyone can hear – but it’s the kind of good news that can be very hard indeed to make sense of .
What does he mean when he describes the poor, the hungy, the sorrowful, the outcast as “Blessed” – or, more baffling still – as “happy”. Happy are the sad? WHAT?
And then, when he goes on to speak woe to those who appear to be in a much better situation… Have we really heard him right or is this another case of blessing those cheesemakers?
The pattern of blessings and woes is one well established in Scripture – lying at the core of the Covenant between Yaweh and his people expressed in Deuteronomy. There you are blessed if you live according to the Torah, that intricate system designed to keep Gods people walking in accordamce with Gods will. It is to say the least disconcerting, to hear that same pattern here as the foundation of the new Israel. The covenant is renewed with a radical reversal of the status quo and it's up to those with ears to hear to live within it with integrity.. This is the upside down world that was promised in the Magnificat….Or is it a world that is finally, gloriously, the right way up?
It all depends on your perspective.
God is going to fulfill his promises and this will mean good news for those who’ve not had any for a long long time. It may not feel like quite such good news for you and me.
The thing is that while our truest, deepest selves yearn for the Kingdom, for valleys exalted and hills made plain, we still struggle to accept it.when the upheaval really hits home. We fall straight into the trap that Jesus recognised, trying to make life comfortable and manageable on our own terms – which tends, of course, to build our own Kingdom rather than God's. Like most of those who listened when he preached, we are breathtakingly hard of hearing about what really matters, and prefer to silence Jesus when he offers us these unwelcome judgements. Maybe we need to pause and think again.
Here on the levelling ground of the plain, Jesus levels with us. His four blessings, four woes, encourage us to look hard at our own choices.
In whom does your life centre?
It's so easy, in a world where choice is king, to set our own selves, our personal quest for health, wealth and happiness, at the heart of every endeavour. .
See I am setting before you life and death, blessing and curses said God in Deuteronomy.
Put like that it seems easy. Of COURSE we will all choose life…Except that here we're offered a choice, but discover that those things which lead ultimately to life are unlikely to make this present easy to navigate.
All those people we'd so much rather not be, turn out to be especially marked with God's favour. And we can't even hide behind St Matthew's softer version of these words and tell ourselves we are aspiring to be poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor! There are many websites that will tell you how breathtakingly wealthy each of us is in comparison with the global population, even if we find ourselves in straitened circumstances compared with a more obviously wealthy neighbour...but Jesus says clearly the poor are blessed. What do we do with that? Does faith demand that we move from our homes, work at the minimum wage, join the line at the food bank? I guess that might help us to understand better but it doesn't seem wildly practical. So what then must we do, you and I?
Perhaps it might help to return to the start of the passage, where we hear of Christ's healing power. Is Luke telling us that Christ's power, which can heal us as it once healed others, will do so only as it reverses our values? Uncomfortable but soul-saving corrective surgery which we can't manage on our own – remember that Collect “ we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves”.
We can't grasp the things of the Kingdom if our hands are clenched tight around material benefits, because that's not what it's about. Though we've a couple of weeks still til Lent begins there's something very Lenton in this reorientation from Kingdom of self to Kingdom of God. Eugene Petersen's The Message, has subtitles that sum up his interpretation of each section. Here they read (to verse 21)"You're Blessed," and then going forward 24-26 “Give Away Your Life." You are blessed when you give away your life. Oh help. There’s not much scope for evasion there.
That is what the disciples have been recruited to do and, with God's help, it's our calling too. We know it's the way Jesus chose. Can we travel with him, borrow his perspective? Can we see and love the people God sees and loves, though they may alarm or repel us just a little at first? Can we fall in love with generosity, and find our own satisfaction in meeting the needs of others? Can we stand on the margins in a place of dereliction and despair, and meet Jesus there before us? It's an exercise in trust, that God knows what God is doing despite the deafening evidence of the world's agenda, and trust is often something I struggle with In The Message, Luke 6:26 reads, "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests...Your task is to be true, not popular."
"Your task it to be true, not popular?"
Ouch. I would so much rather win friends that find myself sharing unpalatable truths…but that's not God's invitation. I long to accept, but it seems that I can’t unless God directly intervenes, working within me so that I may make Kingdom choices.
Perhaps that’s how it feels for you too – but it may be easier if we embark on this journey of giving ourselves away TOGETHER. That’s our calling as Church, is it now? To live into the truth of our calling as Christ’s Body on earth in all the costly daily work of showing God to the world by our own choices, constantly modelling God's priorities, weeping with God for the pain of a broken world, but knowing that by Gods grace the work of healing is begun.