Text of John Foster’s Sermon on the final Beatitudes 26th June 2016
(Sorry, the audio recording didn’t work.)
Matthew 5 v 9-10:
9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
We are looking today at the last two beatitudes, happy are those who work for peace, and happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires, and I have an Archbishop’s story for each.
Please don’t be put off by their remarkable actions. It is in the ordinary duties and labours of life that we can and should develop our spiritual union with God, not through a quiet withdrawal from life or a hothouse of extraordinary artificial ascetic practices. It is in the day to day decisions, not to take offence at another’s rudeness or crossness. Not to succumb to anger or intolerance.
Desmond Tutu says “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.” “It is through weakness and vulnerability that most of us learn empathy and compassion and discover our soul.”
Desmond Tutu grew up in a South Africa where black Africans were denied the right to vote, segregated, forced to live in specific areas and grossly disadvantaged, despite this one of his formative experiences occurred when he was out walking with his mother.
The cross paths with a white priest, Trevor Huddleston, who tipped his hat to her. He had never seen a white man give a sign of respect to a black woman before. He realised that discrimination did not have to be accepted, and that religion could be a powerful tool for racial equality. Outside the church, the toxic society could strip away peoples status and humanity, but within the community of the church they could occupy a valued and important role.
His vision became reality in 1975 when he was appointed as the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg. Tutu said: ‘I realized I had been given a platform that was not readily available to many blacks, and most of our leaders were now in chains or exile. And I said, ‘well I am going to use this to seek to try to articulate our aspirations and the anguishes of our people’. Despite the South African government ignoring his challenges to the systemic inequality, he continued to use his position to advocate the end of apartheid. ‘I never doubted that ultimately we were going to be free, because ultimately I knew there was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.’ He became the archbishop of Cape-town in 1986 the first black person to hold the highest position in the South African Anglican Church, all the while persistently challenging the status quo. When Apartheid finally came to an end he was appointed to head the truth and reconciliation commission which investigated and reported the atrocities committed by both sides in the struggle over apartheid.
If we are to be true peacemakers, then first we must make peace with ourselves. If we are to bring peace to the world we must first bring peace to our own lives. We cannot make peace with ourselves without surrendering ourselves first to God.
Our ambition, our strivings our wants and desires, all of them must be given over to God. This is what Merton would describe as the emptying of self, the Christian denial of self so that we can take up the cross, so that we can make room for God in us.
Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
There are no neutral activities in life, everything we do either leads us closer to God or takes us further away. We must re-evaluate the nature of our activities, not in a simplistic moralising way, but in a deeply spiritual quest for closer relationship with God.
Does this activity bring us life, does it bring us closer to God, is it respectful to God’s creation. It is only God’s love that gives us life, and without love we would cease to be. Thomas Merton puts it like this: ‘There is only one thing to live for: to love God. And only one unhappiness: not to love God. We must trust even when we don’t understand’.
No one has an instant relationship with God, we must all go through the process of learning how to be in relationship with him.
Notice that working for peace does not mean an absence of trials and difficulties. Peace-making is not about avoiding conflict, rather finding a way through conflict, making hard decisions, struggling against injustice and hatred, but without letting the conflict overwhelm or poison us, patiently and lovingly transforming the conflict.
Desmond Tutu has this to say “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
There are no magic wands for doing this, but when we follow the prompting, the animation of the Spirit we can be filled with peace in the middle of turmoil. We can be like the eye of the storm, the oasis in the desert. A place that others will seek out in order to find refuge, and to share our peace.
Oscar Romero was a priest in El Salvador who rose to become Archbishop of San Salvador. Embracing a simple lifestyle he was a popular preacher who demonstrated real compassion for the plight of the poor. Although originally unsympathetic to the new social justice thrust of the Latin American Church, his experience in the countryside as Bishop of Santiago de Maria opened his eyes to the semi-feudal misery and hardship of the campesinos, and the murderous repression being suffered at the hands of the security forces. In February 1977 in a surprise move he was appointed as the new Archbishop of San Salvador. Over the next three years the social and political conflict in El Salvador intensified with electoral fraud preventing change, and peaceful protest supressed with massacres and death squad killings. From his Cathedral pulpit Archbishop Romero became the voice of the voiceless poor. There, in a society of cover-up and lies, he spoke the truth of what was happening in the countryside; he denounced the killings, the torture and the disappearances of community leaders; he demanded justice and recompense for the atrocities committed by the army and police and he set up legal aid projects and pastoral programmes to support the victims of the violence. Rejecting the violence perpetrated by both sides he made every effort to promote peaceful solutions. For his trouble he was vilified in the press, attacked and denounced to Rome by Catholics of the wealthy classes, harassed by the security forces and publically opposed by several episcopal colleagues.
The death threats multiplied; realising he was going to be killed Archbishop Romero said: “If they succeed in killing me, I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
At 6.26pm on March 24th 1980, leading Mass, and just having preached that one must die as Christ died so that others may be saved, he was shot through the heart with a single marksman’s bullet, falling at the foot of a huge crucifix, he died a martyr to God’s preferential option for the poor.
When we are following God’s will, then persecution will inevitably follow. It may not be as clear cut as Archbishop Romero’s example. However we live in troubling times. We remember and pray for Jo Cox, brutally attacked for nothing more than caring for the oppressed and needy. A warning sign that when those in power find it convenient to spread fear and to vilify the weak and powerless, a fertile soil is prepared for extreme views.
Overt physical persecution generally occurs in the breakdown of law and order. We are more likely to experience unusual and troubling events, the most protracted and improbable situations. You may sense in specific situations an unnatural and unwarranted hostility, or you may find events conspiring to prevent you from fulfilling Gods call. When this happens, recognise a subtle form of persecution. Opposition to you following God’s lead. People will blame and accuse you, situations will suddenly explode, doors slammed in your face, but stay calm, stay the course that God has given you.
Continue to seek Gods will, following Gods prompting, drawing on the motivation that God has planted in you. Cultivate sensitivity to His will in each situation. Refuse to think that you already know the answers for each situation, but seek God again and again for the right path.
Recognise that God puts us in situations for a reason, even when they seem terrible, we have a part to play and in seeking God we can find a way through.
Do not make the mistake of vilifying those involved but rather see everything as a gift from God, an opportunity to seek a closer relationship with him, a reminder that we can only lose that which we have not already surrendered to God.
When we love God as we should, our love of God will extend to all of His creation, to each and every person. There is no one and no situation that is beyond the love of God.
We as Christians, as peacemakers, as the persecuted, are called to live distinctive lives, and one of the primary sources of that distinction is in understanding that we are not in charge, we are not in control, and to make matters worse, we are not even capable of thinking in the same way God does. We have to learn, learn not to lean on our own understanding and judgement, but to seek God’s lead in each situation.
P.T Forsythe states that ‘prayer is to religion what original research is to science.’
One of the best ways to deal with hostility and persecution is not to ignore it, but rather to exercise the spiritual discipline to pray for those who are troubling us. When we can pray for our enemies, honestly and compassionately seeking the best for them, then we ourselves are fundamentally changed, we become peacemakers, citizens of the kingdom of heaven, a powerful and distinctive agent through which God can work to convert our enemies into friends.
Following and trusting in God means we don’t need to win battles, we don’t need to avoid conflict, we don’t need to be the best or the strongest. Respecting all people and the earth and its resources – as a result called being called children of God – we share in God’s nature, we are most like him.
When we catch a glimpse of the greatness and the all-consuming sufficiency of the love of God, the present moment becomes like a desert in which we see nothing but God only and become solely occupied with his will; all else is left aside, forgotten, abandoned to providence. God becomes all and seeking him is the only activity that satisfies and fulfils us.
Seeking peace and enduring persecution are by products of a life seeking God. It is through this path that we become God’s beacon of peace and right living for all nations - The Jerusalem spoken of in Isaiah, opening up our understanding of the people of God to all nations.
The final say on peace-making, persecution and living distinctive lives comes from Archbishop Oscar Romero: ‘I know that God’s Spirit, who made Christs body in Mary’s womb, and keeps making the church in history, here in the archdiocese, is a Spirit that is hovering in the words of Genesis – over a new creation. I sense that there is something new in the archdiocese. I am a man, frail and limited, and I do not know what is happening, but I know that God knows. My role as a pastor is what St Paul tells me today, ‘Do not quench the Spirit’ If I say in an authoritarian way to a priest: ‘Don’t do that’ or to a community: ‘Don’t go that way!’ and try to set myself up as if I were the Holy Spirit and start making the church to my liking, I would be quenching the Spirit. But St Paul also tells me: ‘Test everything and keep what is good’. I pray very much to the Holy Spirit for that: the gift of discernment.