Sermon for Williamstown
29th of January 2017
This morning, with great joy, we’re baptising Arlo Conate. Baptism is many things: a cleansing bath; a symbolic death; an anointing; an initiation. Today I want to focus on that last. We’re making Arlo a member of Christ’s body the church. In today’s service Arlo is becoming brother to every Christian in the world. This week I’ve been thinking about what that will mean for Arlo as he grows; what that means for all of us who are identified by the sign of the cross on our foreheads as belonging to Jesus. Is being brother or sister to everyone who bears Jesus’ name a good thing?
I’ve been thinking about this because this past week was the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, a week in which the American President did many frightening things. I won’t bother listing them now – Waleed Ali did an excellent job of that on The Project and you can easily find that video for yourself. But I will quote from an essay that Australian historian and speechwriter Don Watson wrote before Trump was elected. In it, Watson describes a visit Trump made to a lobby group called ‘The Faith and Freedom Coalition’. Trump tells his audience of Christians that he himself is Presbyterian, to applause. He attacks Hillary Clinton, calling her ‘Crooked Hillary,’ and says that she wants a 500 per cent increase in Syrian refugees. The audience boos. At this point, Watson writes:
A young woman stands and shouts “Refugees are welcome here,” and goes on shouting while three bull-necked bouncers haul her out of the room, and the faithful chant, “USA! USA! USA!” Then two more women stand and shout over the chant, “Build bridges not walls!” They too are dragged out as Trump says, “What’s happened in our country is so sad. We are so divided … By the way, these are professional agitators, folks. They’re sent here by the other party.”
This week Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning all refugees from seven countries, including Syria. Trump and the people who chanted “USA! USA! USA!” at the Faith and Freedom Coalition are among the Christians to whom Arlo will today become a brother. But so are the three women who protested during Trump’s speech, and so is my ecumenical sister, Presbyterian Minister Rev. Aimee Moiso, who marched in Washington last week.
It isn’t just American Christianity that is full of contradictions. Also this week, when speaking to the Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same Sex Marriage) Bill, Bishop Peter Comensoli of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference said that the Catholic opposition to marriage equality could be seen by the number who attended church every week:
there are many, many thousands of Catholics voting with their feet each Sunday and they know the position of the church [on same-sex marriage]. It is very clear. It has always been that and it will be that. So people make their choices by way of their own personal actions, and that action of coming to worship on a Sunday, week in, week out, is an indication of where people stand
That statement had me exploding all over social media. But also this past week Alistair Macrae, an ex-president of the Uniting Church and minister at Wesley in the city, became an Officer of the Order of Australia. Alistair said that he accepted the honour on behalf of the whole church, and that he believed it was an ‘acknowledgement of the Uniting Church’s courageous stance on important social issues such as rights for the LGBTIQ communities, the preamble to the UCA constitution recognising the First Peoples and refugee activism.’
This is the church into which we welcome Arlo; the church of Donald Trump and Aimee Moiso, of Bishop Comensoli and Alistair Macrae AO. Obviously I think that Aimee and Alistair are closer to the heart of what Jesus was on about than Donald and Peter or I wouldn’t be standing here. But what gives me that assurance? With what authority can I say that we are welcoming Arlo into a faith committed to welcoming refugees and advocating for the rights of LGBTIQ people?
Listen to the Scripture that the lectionary gives us for today. I did not choose them because I thought they were ideal for a baptism; every Anglican and Lutheran and Reformed church anywhere in the world that uses the Revised Common Lectionary will hear these readings today. From the Prophet Micah: ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’
There’s been controversy for centuries over whether Christians are expected to live out the Beatitudes, and be meek and merciful and poor in spirit and pure in heart. Some people suggest that the commands of the Sermon on the Mount are directed only at special types of Christians, the great saints; others suggest that our very inability to obey Jesus’ commands shows us that we must rely completely on God’s grace. I don’t agree with either of those arguments. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matt 5:48). The Sermon is addressed to those who are in relationship with our Father who is perfect; the God that Jesus reveals to us as faithful, loving and merciful. To those people who haven’t received the vision of Jesus’ God, who aren’t looking forward with longing to the breaking in to the kingdom of heaven, the idea of living in the sort of compassionate, vulnerable way that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount is foolishness. But to those of us who are being saved, it’s the power of God, and we are called to try and live in the way of life that Jesus is describing. We will inevitably fail, but Jesus will be with us on the way.
I could take weeks talking about individual beatitudes; let’s see what I can do in a few minutes. The eight beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount are divided into two parts. The first four beatitudes are addressed to people who are poor, who mourn and who hunger and thirst, people who in one way or another live in misery. They’re called blessed not because of their virtue, but simply because they are poor and so when God’s kingdom comes, when the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is inaugurating is fully realised, their circumstances will be reversed.
In these first four beatitudes we’re not being asked to be poor in spirit or meek or mournful or hungry and thirsty for righteousness. We’re being reassured that when God’s will is done no one will be in these situations. People who now have no reason for hope or joy, who are currently denied their share of God’s blessings, will benefit when God’s reign as described by Jesus comes to fruition. These first four beatitudes comfort those who most need comfort.
The second four beatitudes, on the other hand, do make demands of us. They describe the way in which we are to live as we await the coming of God’s kingdom. The first of these ‘ethical’ beatitudes is about mercy. As we’ll see throughout the Gospel according to Matthew, the God Jesus reveals is a merciful God who welcomes sinners, and Jesus’ religion is a merciful religion in which responding to human need is more important than ritual. Jesus’ disciples are called to be compassionate to those on the margins and those in need. In this disciples are imitating the God who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34:6), the God who shows us mercy.
Another beatitude calls on disciples to be pure of heart. ‘Pure’ could mean ‘clean’, a heart free from sin, or it could mean ‘unadulterated’, as though the heart was pure gold. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will say: ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.’ (Matt 6:24) I believe that in this beatitude being pure of heart means being unadulterated, serving only one master – God – and those who are pure of heart will see the God they serve.
The seventh beatitude doesn’t bless the peace-lovers, or those who live in peace through no work of their own, but the peacemakers – those who take on the hard work of reconciling hostile individuals, families and nations. The peace that Jesus is talking about here is not the pax romana under which he and all those to whom he was speaking lived, but shalom, harmony that leads to the well-being of all, peace which enables the sharing of God’s gifts.
There’s so much more to be said about the beatitudes, books upon books written about them. I’ve given you just the tiniest taste to show you why I believe that the church into which we baptise Arlo today is one that is called to welcome everyone, to care, to forgive, to be compassionate, to share with those in need.
Four years ago last Friday I was inducted into this congregation as minister and the Rev. Dr Morag Logan preached on today’s passage from Micah. She called on me to minister here by acting justly, loving you all kindly, and spending each day walking with God. As she called me, so I call you: act justly; love kindly, walk with God. Try your utmost to show mercy, to be pure in heart, to make peace. This, I believe, is how we are meant to live as Christians. It is into a community of kindness and compassion that we are welcoming Arlo. It is as people of kindness and compassion that we will be role models for Arlo.
We live in a complicated and contradictory world, and the one holy catholic and apostolic church is a complicated and contradictory body, but I am utterly and absolutely convinced that we are baptising Arlo into a faith committed to doing such strange things as welcoming refugees (no matter what Donald Trump says) and advocating for the rights of LGBTIQ people (no matter what Bishop Comensoli says). So let us rejoice! We are the people of God and today Arlo is joining us! Amen.
 Don Watson, Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump, Quarterly Essay Issue 63 (2016), p. 12.