Sermon for Sunday, February 2

Matthew 5:1-12

What is Reality?

(a meditation before Communion)

There are a few churches around town which have a sign out in front upon which they put some interesting slogans.  I am always interested to see what they say.  This past week, a friend sent me a collection of these slogans from church signs in the States:  “Staying in bed, shouting, ‘Oh God!’ Does not constitute going to Church.”  “Stop, drop and roll does not work in hell.” “Walmart is not the only saving place.”  A number of years ago, I passed a church which said, “We prepare you for the real world.”  I was left wondering what world are they talking about? Would it be this material world?  Would it be the world after death?  Or would it be the world of enlightenment that the Buddhist strives after?  Or would it be the world of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked so much about?  I suppose it would come down to the theology of that particular church.  “We prepare you for the real world.  However, the way you define reality is going to affect the way in which you act in the world.

For a view of one reality this past week, we might turn to the newspaper.    What I found interesting was a story on the recollections of survivors of Auschwitz. In the beginning, these survivors found that the world didn’t want to hear of the horrors that they had endured.  It seemed in the late 1940’s and 1950’s that the world wanted to get on with living life and forgetting the terrible reality of the death of six million Jews.  While soldiers might be honoured for bravery in battle, it was preferred that the other side, the terrible side of war be forgotten.

A question in my mind has always been how could the peoples of Germany allow such atrocities to take place?  I wonder how the peoples of Iraq could have allowed Saddam Hussein?  Or, closer to home, why do we allow or tolerate so much wrong in our own society?  There are many answers.

In late May, 1934, the German Evangelical Church, a United Church of Canada partner church in Germany, wrote the Barmen Declaration.  It was a year after the Nazis had swept to power and Hitler had been proclaimed Fuhrer.  The pro-Nazi force within German churches was becoming strong.  At this point, the rights of a minority within the church, those Christians with Jewish ancestry, were being challenged, and the German state was being equated with the Kingdom of God.  The Barmen declaration spoke out against this and over the next number of years, pastors who preached against the state and later the treatment of Jews were arrested and often killed.  What was reality for the people of Germany in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s?  It has been said that the church’s finest moments are when it stands up and speaks the Word of God in the face of the prevailing views of society.  Sometimes the church’s view of the way things should be is radically different from that of what we see in society.

Today we read from the Beatitudes.  As we talk about this passage think on an email someone sent me this week that told about a class at the University of Alberta in Edmonton where students in the psychology programme were attending their first class on emotional extremes. “Just to establish some parameters,” said the professor to the student from Ontario, “What is the opposite of joy?”  “Sadness,” said the student. “And the opposite of depression?” he asked of the young lady from BC.  “Elation,” she said.

“And you sir,” he said to the young man from Calgary, “what about the opposite of woe?” The Calgarian replied, “Sir, I believe that would be ‘giddy up’.”

In this morning’s reading, Jesus’ words sound very “unreal” to us.   As we read through the Sermon on the Mount, we are struck by the “unreal” demands that it makes.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who mourn.  When someone strikes you on the right cheek turn and offer him your left…and so on.  They all sound like a recipe for being a full-time door mat for the world.  Of course it sounds that way because we think we know the “real world.”  In the real world if you do these things it seems like foolishness…but I don’t know, the more I read the newspaper, the more I ask myself, is this real?    Are the events as reported in the news what life is really about?   Who tells us what is real?  Jesus is saying that there is a different reality to which he invites those who would follow him.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  How different might world history have been if, after the Gulf War, there had not been a complete embargo on Iraq which led to the death of over 100,000 Iraqis?  What would have happened if instead, we had used all of our military might and desire and dumped tons of food and medicine on Iraq?  Do you think that Saddam Hussein would have been able to maintain his unholy grip on that land?  What if we had shown our generosity?  Crazy are the peacemakers, but it doesn’t seem as if the warmongers have the answer.

If someone strikes you on your right cheek.  I knew a man who had one of the nastiest divorces I have ever seen.  They fought like cats and dogs through the courts.  After the settlement,  you can imagine the hate and bitterness.  Every time he went to get the children, there was an ugly scene.  He said, “I’ve got to do something to get control of this terrible situation, if only for the sake of the children.”  He decided to write a letter.  In it, he took as much responsibility as he could for the breakdown of the marriage.  He didn’t relieve his wife of her responsibility, but he was honest about his.  He then asked for forgiveness.  In the real world, he didn’t get it, but somehow, in his own feelings, he was healed and able to deal better with the situation.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall be comforted.  I want to quote some words from a father whose little girl was on her first job at her first day of work at a job graciously provided by his best friend.  She was at her desk on the 80th floor of the World Trade Centre on September 11th.  “My grief is great, deeper than can be imagined.  But I’ve also learned that I am nobody special.  There are thousands like me, not just in the events of September 11, but throughout the whole world.  Lots of parents have been in grief before me at the loss of a child.  Now it’s my turn.  Our Christian faith teaches us that even God knows what it is like to lose a child to the violence and hatred of other people.  Speaking of the Christian faith, I want you to know that I now know a lot more about the Christian faith…I’ve learned how to be a Christian, the hard way.”

If this world that we see is the real and only world, then reading the newspapers tells us that life in this world is solitary, poor, brutish and short and we have cause to mourn.  However, Jesus comes along and promises laughter to those who mourn, blessedness to those who are victims of injustice, and triumph for those who do not repay evil for evil.

Jesus saw a new world coming.  Jesus himself was a sign of that new world, the first outbreak of the kingdom of God.  A signal that, by the grace of God, reality was making a fundamental shift.  It is interesting that in the middle of his sermon, Jesus switches from talking about the future to talking about now, today.  He tells us what to do, here, now, if we want to be a part of the new world that is coming.  He gives us the privilege of being a beachhead, a first wave of that new world.  Every time we forgive, or do not return evil for evil, we show our citizenship and a little piece of the new reality becomes visible in us.   Which reality do you want to work for in your own life:  the one we see in the newspapers, the one which can allow an Auschwitz, an Iraq, and a September 9/11 or the one which Jesus calls us to?  The kingdom of God starts by being born in each one of us.  Blessed are you this day.  Amen.