“All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice: him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell; come ye before him and rejoice.”
We come to this Eucharist today with profound thanksgiving, on this Australia Day, for all of the blessings that we have received from the God who has created this world, our great nation, and indeed each one of us, and who sustains all life by his great love. We recognise, of course, the pain for some who in calling this day ‘Invasion Day’ remind us of the darker side of the history of the colonisation of this land, but nevertheless, we come with a right sense of pride for the freedom and the stability that we Australians enjoy together.
So what does it mean to be an Australian in the Twenty First Century? One commentator put it like this: “Being Australian is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV.” We may not be the brightest of peoples – last year 142 Australians were injured by not removing all pins from new shirts; 58 were injured by using sharp knives instead of screwdrivers; 8 had serious burns trying on a new jumper with a lit cigarette in their mouth; and 543 Australians were admitted to Emergency Departments after opening bottles of beer with their teeth. But we are a nation who have been gathered together on this land from the corners of the globe, offering the Australian Dream of ‘boundless plains to share’ as we sing in our National Anthem, and the ideals of ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go’.
We have much to be thankful to God for, on this Australia Day. We feel truly blessed to be part of this great nation. So we may be surprised, on this day when we give thanks for all that we have been given by God; remembering, of course, that none of this is ours, it is all on loan to us from our Heavenly Father, to hear the blessings that Jesus is throwing out all over the place in today’s Gospel reading, to eight groups in total.
The Gospel writers tell us that large crowds came following Jesus with many who sought healing, and when Jesus saw the crowds he went up a hillside and began to teach them. And this list of blessed are the beginning of the collection of his teachings which we have come to call The Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth…” and so on. In fact a more accurate translation would be to say that Jesus is saying, “congratulations – wonderful news!” rather than “blessed” to each of these groups of people. “Congratulations, wonderful news, you that poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven… Congratulations, wonderful news, you who mourn, for you will be comforted.”
Of course the self-evident problem for us is that those are not things that we congratulate people about. Mourners often go uncomforted, the meek don’t inherit the earth, the powerful do (often by treading on the meek on the way), those who long for justice are frequently disappointed. Around Australia today our brothers and sisters will be celebrating our athleticism, and the youthful vigour of our nation – not our poverty, sadness, and alienation.
Biblical Scholars have puzzled over this great sermon, this great collection of Jesus’ teachings. In the version that we heard from Matthew’s Gospel today, we hear only about those who are blessed. In Luke’s account each of these groups is followed by the naming of a group who will be damned. Blessed are the poor, but damned are the rich. If you are anything like me there will be a sinking feeling in your stomach when you hear those words. I don’t want to be damned, but I don’t want to be poor either. I mean, I don’t want to be all that rich, but I want to be secure, and I want my family to have nice things, and I want a superannuation plan for when I’m older.
Isn’t that part of the Australian dream, to own a plot of land, and to have enough for a good life?Yet in our global-village we are reminded by the comparisons of images which we see on our television screens and in newspapers, that all of us here are richer in almost all ways than the millions and millions of people in God’s world who’s names we do not know and who’s faces we have never seen, but who live in situations of absolute poverty. Jesus says to them, and not to us, in a radical reversing of the world, you are the ones who are blessed. Congratulations you who are poor, do not lose heart, have hope for the time will come, when you will be filled.
In my imagination I wonder what the poorest people in our world would say to us if they were reflecting on this Gospel passage with us at this Eucharist. Liberation theologians in our Church who listen and reflect with some of the poorest people in our world, remind us that putting the poor first is not just a political choice, it is how things are in the Kingdom which was inaugurated by Jesus. So let’s listen, through them, to the voices of the poor from around the world.
We are poor, they might say, because our own leaders have taken advantage of us. We can see their wealth, and what it is squandered on, whilst we remain poor – so we are powerless. We are poor because the whole global economy is against us. Most of the time we are too small to trade in the same league as rich nations, and when we do trade we are ripped off and most of our profit stays in the rich countries, and we never see it – so many of those around us have lost hope.
We are poor because we are homeless. We didn’t choose this way of life, we were forced to flee from regimes that wanted to kill us, we were forced to leave the land of our ancestors because grain no longer grows there because the soil is dying. We are homeless because although we can see room for us in your country, or in the empty buildings of your cities, you won’t let us in – so we feel like we are losing our dignity.
But that’s not the end of the story, they might say to us, in all of these situations we believe that God remembers us, we will be happy – we are blessed – because one day things will change…. God remembers us, and we are blessed!
The preferential option for the poor, this idea that God puts first those who are in the worst situations now, is an expression of God’s love in Jesus: a confirmation that God knows the pain of those who are poor, and hungry and sad, and persecuted. These are the priorities of the Kingdom of God. When we use that phrase, “the Kingdom of God,” we refer to those activities, those thoughts and intentions lived out in the world that show God’s rule – where God’s priorities come first. Where no matter what the society around us may want us to conform to, those who Jesus says are blessed, are the ones who are treated accordingly.
The hope of the Kingdom of God, is both here now, and also yet to come. Jesus inaugurated it so we know that it has begun, and the Kingdom goes on becoming, it goes on growing when we live it as signs of it, when we live lives that point towards it.
Our Gospel today is not a set of commandments, Jesus does not tell us to become poor or to suffer. It is gospel: good news for those who already do, not good advice for the rest of us. Jesus’ announcement re-assures those that are on the margins of society both around the world, and in our own country of Australia, that (regardless of appearances now) they are right at the centre of God’s plan. If God puts them first, then we must put them first too, as we break free from the way that our society sees the world, and look instead through the lense of the cross of Christ. To put it bluntly, if what we do is good news for ourselves, but not good news for the poor and for the hungry, and for the sad and for the persecuted, then we are in trouble; because the prayer which Jesus taught us to pray each day, makes clear that our deepest longings are for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done right here and now in our own nation, in our own town, just as it is in heaven.
Which is why we gather around God’s altar of grace today. We do not come simply to satisfy our own needs, our musical tastes, our liturgical preferences, our desire for some kind of warm and fuzzy religious feeling. We come to celebrate all that is good in our nation, and to give thanks for it; and we come to bring the pain of what lurks in the dark shadows of this country, and of our world to God, bringing a broken world to the breaking of bread. And we do it in the knowledge that God comes close to us in the brokenness of his crucified son.
On this Australia Day we pray once again for the coming of the Kingdom which is already amongst us. The Kingdom that turns our priorities upside down, that brings to the centre those who are blessed, even if it throws us out of the limelight, at least for a time. “Congratulations to those who are poor in spirit, to those who mourn, to those who are meek, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to the merciful and pure in heart, to the peacemakers and persecuted.” We cling to them because it is through them that we will find our own salvation in Christ. Blessed are they, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.