Sermons

Sun, Jan 29, 2017

A different set of values

Series:Sermons

Australia Day––

it means different things to different people.

For many, it’s a day for patriotic fervour and celebration…

lamb on the barbecue…

parties at the beach…

and wearing Australian flags to the tennis or the cricket.

For some, it’s a day when they swear allegiance and become citizens.

And for some, it’s a sombre day of mourning…

as they remember what the arrival of the first fleet meant for their ancestors and their way of life.

Australia Day is––

or, perhaps, it should be––

a day of reflection and remembrance;

when we celebrate our achievements

and when we acknowledge past wrongs and injustices;

a day when we pause to ponder what it actually means to be an Australian;

a day when we reflect seriously on the values that we want to hold up and aspire to live out;

when we reflect upon what we consider important…

what we admire…

what we strive for…

what we expect of each other…

what defines who we are and who we want to be as a community.

Thus, in his Australia Day message, the prime minister––

Malcolm Turnbull––

sought to highlight our country’s cultural diversity…

in terms of faith, culture, and background…

that makes us “the most successful multicultural society in the world”…

a society that values democracy and egalitarianism…

“solidarity…mutual respect and mateship”.

At the same time…

a billboard in Melbourne promoting Australia Day celebrations…

which featured two young girls in hijabs…

was temporarily taken down…

after threats and abuse were directed at the advertising company responsible.

A theatre in Canberra…

which erected a similar billboard…

received threats of vandalism from far-right groups…

claiming that it was “un-Australian”…

and an attempt to “redefine our nation and culture”.

Defining who we are…

and who we want to be…

is never straightforward or simple.

There are always competing claims and definitions about what are our “values”.

 

And that was also true in the first century world––

a world where the gulf between the haves and the have-nots was enormous…

with one percent of the population controlling ninety-nine percent of the land and wealth;

a world where the average person farmed just a few acres of land…

hoping simply to produce enough to feed their families…

with the notion of making a profit almost unthinkable.

In bad years, they would have to borrow from the “haves”…

with loan repayments adding a significant burden such that many defaulted…

lost their land and became tenants…

or were forced to move to the city and ply a trade.

It was a world where there was no social security safety net––

and people relied upon their relatives to help them out if they were in trouble.

As a result, someone only became “poor” when they suffered severe misfortune––

if they lost their land or became incapacitated––

and when they lacked an extended family network to rely upon…

making begging the only option.

Such a scenario left them utterly defenceless…

utterly powerless…

and utterly alone.

In that context, being “poor” was seen as being cursed—

as though the person were being punished by God.

To be poor was to be without honour––

to lose face…

to be without standing or esteem in the community.

It placed you on the margins of society.

It made you the object of contempt and derision, not pity.

But that also happened, for example, if you were disowned by your family…

if you were unable or unwilling to defend your honour from slights and challenges…

or, simply, if you didn’t fit in…

if you didn’t measure up to the community’s standards…

if you didn’t abide by the norms and expectations of their culture.

 

Into that world and into that context, the Historical Jesus spoke a word of hope.

What he actually said was much briefer and simpler than the version in Matthew’s Gospel––

which we heard read this morning.

What Jesus actually said was much closer to Luke’s version:

“Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…blessed are you who weep…blessed are you when people hate and when they exclude you…on my account”.

In some cases, the author of Matthew’s Gospel seems to have tried to soften these statements––

for example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.

The way that’s translated could imply that he wanted to include the rich…

who simply felt dispirited or spiritually deprived.

But what he’s probably referring to are those who are poor but who––

according to his opinion––

have the right attitude.

On the other hand, when he adds, “Blessed are the meek”…

he’s not referring to those who are humble––

as we would understand it.

The word translated as “the meek” was often a synonym for “the poor”…

because an attitude of submission and weakness…

an inability to defend one’s honour…

was characteristic of the poor.

So, even allowing for the author’s slightly conservative bent…

he still presents Jesus inverting the normal cultural expectations…

about what was right and proper…

and what was to be valued and admired;

he was inverting the way that they had been brought up to view other people and the world.

He presents a Jesus who proclaimed that those who were despised and denigrated…

feared and ridiculed…

oppressed and excluded by their society…

were, in fact, valued, welcomed, and favoured by God––

that they belonged to God’s family.

In other words, in his preaching, Jesus was staking claim to a very different way of understanding society…

and a very different way of understanding God:

that God doesn’t judge or value people according to our culture-bound assumptions;

that God sees people differently;

that God has a very different set of values.

And God calls us to a radical change in the way that we see, and think, and value…

and, thus, in the way that we shape community.

Jesus proclaimed that God values those whom our society devalues…

that God welcomes those whom our society shuns…

that God embraces those whom our society excludes.

 

So, if we were to try to reinterpret and re-contextualise Jesus’ message for today…

what would it sound like?

 

Perhaps…

although not as poetic…

it would go something like this:

“Blessed are those who are despised and treated with suspicion because of their culture, race, or religion––

they are children of God.

Blessed are those consigned to society’s scrap-heap…

and made to feel worthless because they rely upon welfare to survive––

they are loved and valued by God.

Blessed are the asylum seekers, the aboriginal peoples, and all who suffer prejudice and discrimination––

they truly belong in the kingdom of God.

Blessed are those who are gay…

who are subjected to bullying and treated as second-class citizens––

they are made in God’s image and are precious in God’s sight.

Blessed are the elderly…

who are effectively devalued and shunned by a society that worships the young and the new––

they are honoured and respected by God”.

And, to a church, struggling to discover its relevance,

in a society that seems to get along fine without it…

perhaps Jesus might proclaim:

“Blessed are you who wrestle with issues of faith in the modern world…

who look beyond simplistic answers and struggle to live the questions…

in valuing, welcoming, and loving as I do…

you will never be irrelevant”.

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