Sermon preached by Nicolas CR at St Matthew, Willesden on 14 February 2010

Lukan Beatitudes

First, a protest against the translation of the Gospel we have just heard. The Greek word makarios does not mean happy. It means blessed. Happiness is an emotion, a feeling. To say 'happy are those who mourn' is simply ridiculous and misses the point. To say 'blessed are the poor, or the hungry, or those who mourn' insists that they are going to receive gifts from God. God will put things right for them. He will enrich their poverty, feed their hunger, take away their cause of mourning. At the same time he will take away the wealth from the rich, make them hungry, give them cause to mourn. God will turn everything upside down. This is the message of Luke's Gospel. Remember, right at the beginning of the Gospel how Mary says to Elizabeth "He has pulled down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the hungry and meek." God is turning the world upside down. That is what Luke sees as he watches the Kingdom of God being preached around the Mediterranean world.

There is a second curious feature about this passage. In Matthew Jesus gives his beatitudes on top of the mountain. But Luke says Jesus came down from the mountain and stood in a level place. Why? Probably because that is what Moses did. Moses received the Law from God on top of Mount Sinai; he came down the mountain and gave it to the people of Israel who were waiting at the bottom. Jesus does the same. Luke is telling us that this is the new Law of God, given to us to replace the law of Moses. In the past it was the rich, the noble, the influential people who had power and ruled the world. Now, says Luke, this will change. The poor, the hungry, the weak will be the blessed ones who rule the world.

Is it true? Some will argue yes. Now that we have democratic rights the poor do participate in government and influence its policies. Others will say no; powerful people continue to rule the world and ignore the poor as far as they can. Others still will say that even when the poor do get into power they behave just like the rich. Human nature doesn't change. People go on being selfish. People cannot resist the temptations of power. Sadly that is true.

My home country is Zimbabwe and I go there often. When freedom first came to our country the new government declared that they would change the lives of the poor. There would be no more mega-rich fat cats. There would be free education and free medicine. Of course it has not happened. Quite the opposite. The government members and their friends are super rich. The country has got poorer and poorer. Yet a small group of rich people have got richer and richer. They have exploited the situation of inflation and food shortages to make a killing themselves. That is wicked. That is the kind of sin Jesus speaks against. Mind you, there are many people who were quite rich in Zimbabwe and have got much poorer. Some have lost everything but they refused to do what was unjust.

What about the poor in Zimbabwe? Are they blessed? Life is very hard for them. They struggle to find food; they struggle to send their children to school. They cannot afford to go to hospital or to doctors. Life is hard for the poor. Yet at first sight you may not guess it. You go to a church service where the Church is full to capacity with very poor people and they fill the church with singing. They laugh, they clap, they welcome you with joy. It seems the poor know how to celebrate in a way the rich do not. Jesus says "Blessed are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you". This has been happening in Harare for the past two years. You go to Anglican churches in Harare and you find Anglicans shut out of their churches, forced to worship outside, or in classrooms, or in dirty halls. Yet their congregations are growing. They have discovered a new depth to their faith. Driven from their churches they have found Christ has come with them out into the wilderness. In that sense they are blessed. The powerful have driven Anglicans out of their churches and found themselves left without Christ. They are unhappy, angry, violent. The Anglicans outside are peaceful, joyful, loving. God has blessed them richly in their poverty.

I could talk for a long time about Zimbabwe but now is not the time. We have to come back to St Matthew's, Willesden. What is the message of this Gospel story today?

Well, Lent starts on Wednesday. I suppose most of us have a certain dread of Lent. It's not that we do anything very heroic. We don't suffer much. We are not like desert fathers who lived on one biscuit a day, or slept only one hour at night. But even the little disciplines of Lent, like giving up chocolate, or television, or alcohol seems like a big thing. Can we really get through the whole of Lent without a chocolate? Can I spend an evening reading a book instead of watching TV? And why should I anyway? What good will it do me to give something up? Today's beatitudes remind us that fasting is not necessarily miserable. It brings us joy. We find we can live without these things and that is freedom. We find that if we no longer depend on chocolate, or alcohol to make us happy we have to turn to God and we find he is there. In Lent we clear away the clutter in our lives and make space for God and God fills that space. He comes into the times we spend reading and praying. He comes into the spaces we leave by going without things we like. Lent is an exciting time of finding God.

Fasting is not just about ourselves. It is not just that I must learn discipline by giving up sweets. Those of us who have been to Zimbabwe have found it wonderful being with people who are poor. We can weep with them and laugh with them. We share their rather poor food and sometimes we can give them something nice to eat. We can share our material wealth and they can share their spiritual wealth. Then both of us enjoy the gifts of God.

In Lent we don't just think of ourselves. We think of others. Giving things up should give us a little extra money that we can give away. Going without food reminds us of how hard it must be for the poor to have no food and so we mourn for them and pray for them. In Lent we should be aware of a suffering world, a world damaged by climate change, by greed, by exploitation. That is the sense in which we mourn.

Yet Jesus tells us to rejoice as well even to dance for joy. We will find ourselves doing that if we take Lent seriously. When we get to Easter day, leaner and fitter from our fasting, we will really enjoy the celebrations. To celebrate Easter day when we haven't fasted in Lent is just greed and gluttony. To celebrate after a good, demanding Lent is real Christian joy. Jesus tells us today not to be frightened of a little suffering. He will walk with us through the desert. Then, as Isaiah says, we shall be 'like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade."

    Nicolas CR