Saturday, January 28, 2017

Holiness and the Nearness of God: Reflections on Matthew 5.1-12 (RCL Proper 4A, 29 January 2017)

Holiness and the Nearness of God
Reflections on Matthew 5.1-12

RCL Proper 4A
29 January 2017

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
         Some years ago when I was teaching in the Native Ministry Programme of Vancouver School of Theology, a student shared a story with me about the challenge of translation.  It seems that an aboriginal community was visited by two groups of missionaries, one Roman Catholic, the other Anglican.  Both groups were eager to translate their worship services into the local language.  So, the Roman Catholics asked a member of the community, fluent in English, how to translate In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  In quick order a translation was provided.  The Anglicans asked the same member how to translate In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  The translator looked at the missionaries curiously, repeated the phrase and asked if this was what they wanted translated.  When the missionaries assured him that this was indeed what they wanted translated, the translator dutifully provided a translation.

         Both groups began worship services in the community, but the Anglicans noticed that the Roman Catholics were drawing larger numbers.  The Anglicans also noticed that at certain points in the liturgy, especially when the name of the Trinity was invoked, there would be some titters and curious looks among the worshippers.

         So the Anglicans went back to the translator.  After a bit of prodding he pointed out the problem.  The Roman Catholics had asked him to translate the word Spirit.  This was easy because his community had a high opinion of the Spirit of God which they felt guided the world.  But, he pointed out, the Anglicans had asked him to translate the word Ghost.  Now he knew that spirit and ghost have different connotations in English.  So, he followed his instructions and provided a translation of the word ghost in his native language.  But ghosts, in his culture, were considered foolish, because they were the souls of the departed who were unwilling to leave this world.  His people pitied ghosts and prayed to the Spirit that they would move on to a better life.  When Anglicans prayed, his people heard them describe God as Father, Son and that foolish Soul who doesn't know what's good for it.  The Anglicans quickly adopted the Roman Catholic translation.

         We face a similar challenge in today's all too familiar passage from the Gospel according the Matthew.  'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,' he says.  'Well enough,' say we.  'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,' he says.  'Okay,' say we, becoming a bit more uncertain about where this is going.  'Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,' he says.  'Ah, wait a moment,' we say, 'that's not our experience.'  And as Jesus goes on, we become more and more concerned that what he is saying turns our world and our expectations upside down.

         Perhaps the discomfort grows because of the word blessed, the English word used most frequently to translate the Greek word makarios which Matthew uses.  A more recent translation, the Common English Bible, translates makarios as happy.  I find that this translation makes things even more difficult.  Blessed are the poor in spirit becomes Happy are those who are hopeless.  Now I have never thought of hopelessness as a happy condition, so I find myself wishing that we had simply borrowed makarios to make the text a bit stranger to our ears:  Makarios are the poor in spirit.

         Why might I want this?  Because, in the time of Jesus, to call a particular group of people makarios was to describe them as being 'in a privileged, fortunate circumstance' (The New Interpreter's Bible VIII, 176).  These people are makarios because, despite all evidence to the contrary, in them God has acted, is acting and will act to reveal God's purposes for us and for all of creation.  They are makarios because, in them, God has drawn near to us and is with us.  Perhaps we should call such people holy because they have become 'thin places' where creation as God truly wills it to be becomes present to us.

         Recently I began reading Diana Butler Bass's book, Grounded:  Finding God in the World.  One of her concerns is that the God whom we worship has often been described as a distant judge who is unapproachable, incomprehensible and, as a consequence, increasingly unbelievable.  She challenges Christians to read the Bible from 'the perspective of divine nearness' (Grounded 2015, 13), so that we can experience 'a God who comes close (and who is ) compelled by a burning desire to make heaven on earth and occupy human hearts' (Grounding 2015, 13).

         This is what I believe Jesus is saying in today's gospel.  Holy are the poor in spirit --- because they show us how to walk humbly with God.  Holy are those who mourn --- because they show us how precious each human life is and how interwoven our lives are.  Holy are the meek --- because they show us how violence only begets violence and destroys both the victim and perpetrator.  Holy are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness --- because they show us that resistance to evil and injustice is never futile.  Holy are the merciful --- because they show us how reconciliation is a path to wholeness.  Holy are those who are pure in heart --- because, in their faces, we see the face of God.  Holy are the peacemakers --- because they show us that we are all children of God.  Holy are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake --- because they show us that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, God is at work transforming this world.  Holy are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account --- because when we are treated thus we know that we are living faithful to our calling.

         Those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus as our Lord, our Teacher, our Friend, have no illusions about the difficulty such a choice brings.  Our faith is not a magic wand that we can wave and banish all the ills that we encounter.  But it is a faith that proclaims that God is near to us, God is with us, God is for us.  We know this because God makes the divine presence known in the ordinary lives of ordinary people who try to do justice, who try to love kindness and who try to walk humbly with God.  Blessed are they; blessed are we.  Holy are they; holy are we.  For the kingdom of God has drawn near --- and it is ours.

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