Sermon preached by Canon Professor Mark Chapman at the Benefice Service in St Mary’s, Garsington on Sunday 6th May.
Readings: Isaiah 55: 1-5, Matthew 6: 25-34.
On Tuesday evening this week I was giving a lecture to our non-residential students on the revival of Evangelicalism in the Church of England since the 1950s – it’s a fascinating subject, or at least I think it is! It’s all connected with Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade of 1954 – so I play some old Movietone films and a few of Billy’s sermons. It’s all quite fun and then we reflect on the sort of message he was delivering. One thing that comes over very strongly is that he keeps mentioning the wider world – a world in which the H Bomb had just been exploded in Bikini Atoll and where mutually assured mass destruction threatened to bring an end to the world. And in that situation, he says over and over again, the political and intellectual leaders were completely helpless. His message was incredibly simple – only Jesus Christ could offer security in this insecure world. Just before his return to America he went to the divided city of Berlin where he was interviewed by an American newspaper. What he said was quite remarkable:
[T]he human mind cannot cope with the problems that we are wrestling with today. And when our intellectual leaders begin to admit that they don’t know the answer, and that fact reaches the masses on the street, then they are going to turn somewhere. They will turn to all sorts of escapisms. Some will turn to alcohol. Others will turn to religion in the want of security and peace – something to hold onto.
Billy Graham is suggesting that religion is a kind of escapism like alcohol, something to hold onto because of the impossibility of solving the problems of the day. To me that sounds very similar to what Karl Marx said 100 years earlier when he talks about religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’. All very fitting as we remember the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth yesterday – for good or ill he has made a huge impact on the world.
I am sure that Billy Graham wouldn’t have approved of the comparison with Marx but I think it says something very important, which takes us straight to the Gospel reading. ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body’. Instead be like the lilies of the field and simply trust in God. It wouldn’t be difficult to read this as saying that Jesus is simply encouraging resignation – he is saying something like this: ‘You can’t do anything about your situation, so just get on with life’. And if that’s the case then Karl Marx may well have been right – religion would be a kind of escapism and it would stop people from trying to change the world around them.
But what Jesus says is very different and it goes beyond resignation – he exhorts the crowd that is gathered on the mount to strive for the Kingdom of God and for God’s righteousness. In other words, our concerns need to be with striving for God’s kingdom in the present moment; his justice is right in the here and now. To go back to our beatitude, we are blessed when we hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness right now. Of course it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the news and all the problems of the world but what Jesus seems to be saying is that we simply have to focus on the now – on righteousness right now. And righteousness is not a difficult concept – it is simply about doing what is right. So, says Jesus, don’t worry about tomorrow but do what is right today. God can act even here among us through us – just as he has acted in clothing the grass of the field.
Here we need to walk the fine line between contentment – an ability to put up with the present moment because we are able to glimpse the glory of God even in the midst of our difficult world – and resignation, when we feel so overwhelmed we are forced into a retreat from it. I guess the blessedness that comes from striving for righteousness is all about an ability to live in trust that we can still act righteously even when things look impossible. I think it’s what allows us to gain a sense of happiness, of blessedness which is what links all the beatitudes together. It’s about the blessedness that comes as the radiance of the light of Christ dwells within us and it is what allows us to keep on striving for God’s kingdom.
Let’s move to another terrible time in world history – to ten years before the Cold War that set the agenda for Billy Graham, to Berlin in 1944 and to the great German church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death shortly before the end of the Second World War. He wrote many letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge. They had shared many good times together, especially at the theological college at Finkenwalde that Bonhoeffer had established during the difficult times of the 1930s. It was a place of prayer and learning, but it was also a place where music was performed and where the young men played games and enjoyed getting to know one another. Bonhoeffer wrote to Bethge from Tegel prison in Berlin after his arrest by the Gestapo – it is a letter is from a man writing in frightening and difficult circumstances and who must have known that his life was under threat. What he wrote was striking: “Who is there,” Bonhoeffer asked, “in our times, who can devote himself with an easy mind to music, friendship, games, or happiness? Surely not the ethical man, but only the Christian”.
Here in a terrible situation of war, even when the horror was at its worst, we have a pastor, an innocent man in prison, writing to his friend to say that friendship, music and games are vital for human flourishing. The joy of living persists even during the appalling circumstances of the Second World War. Music, friendship, games are all ways of expressing the joy of living – another way in which human beings can flourish. Bonhoeffer could not have been happy in any obvious way – he faced imminent death; but still he realised that the heart of human life was the great sense of joy that was inspired by the comfort that came from God and which transcended all the ways of the world. It was a blessedness that allowed him to strive for the Kingdom of God and which kept alive that sense of hope – he didn’t escape into another world but could glimpse humanity even in the darkest of times. It was a sense of blessedness.
And perhaps that’s what Christian happiness, true blessedness is all about – it is about God’s embrace, God’s ‘Yes’, as Paul calls it, that takes us beyond the suffering, beyond human affliction, and beyond worldly wisdom into the delight of God’s love, which we can sense in those who keep alive the spark of hope as they strive for the Kingdom against all the odds. They continue to hunger after righteousness and they have their fill as they keep the sense of hope alive. The message is that Christians should continue striving whatever the world might throw at us – this is the very opposite of escape; instead it’s about continuing to act, to seek to do what is righteous even when to worldly eyes that might seem quite pointless. That is the blessedness of the beatitudes and of the whole of the Sermon on the Mount – it’s not a vision for another world, which is why Karl Marx got Christianity wrong; instead it’s a vision of blessedness for this world; a hunger for righteousness in a world of want and need. Christianity is no escape but is about blessedness in the here and now. Amen