Last week, the annual Australia Day Honours List was announced: a list of people recognised for their contribution to our nation. So it is timely that in tonight’s reading, Jesus gives us his own honours list: the people honoured for the way they embody and contribute to God’s culture. The Australia Day Honours List usually includes politicians, military officers, scientists, sports stars, charity workers, artists, businesspeople, and others. Who do we find on Jesus’ honours list? Well, as you can imagine, it’s a bit different.
First up on Jesus’ list are the people who have no sense of entitlement. We all know people with a strong sense of entitlement: they are arrogant and proud. They grab at everything, but they are never satisfied. On the other hand, those who know that life is a gift and that the world owes them nothing will be constantly delighted by God’s goodness, and always eager to share. And so of course they are honoured in God’s culture!
Next, we find people who enter into their grief. You might have noticed that those who shy away from their suffering become brittle and hard; but those who face up to their suffering learn much about themselves and others. They often discover God’s extraordinary comfort, and learn compassion, a compassion which they pour out on the world. Their compassion softens hearts all around them, and they are greatly loved—and they are honoured in God’s culture!
On Jesus’ list, we find people who engage in nonviolence, and who hunger and thirst for justice. For those who refuse to participate in the violence of the world align themselves with Jesus. They have caught a vision of a life greater than their own; this vision will give their own lives great meaning, and they will be deeply satisfied. And they are honoured in God’s culture!
We also find the contemplative, for they have turned their backs on the rat race, and opened their hearts and minds to the love of God. By taking the time to pray, and facing up to their own shadows, they see God’s face: and so they are honoured in God’s culture!
Of course, the people honoured by God are not the people most often honoured in our society. Some of the people on this year’s honours list might fit the bill, but many of our leaders do not. A quick flick through any newsfeed suggests that we usually value other qualities instead. Jesus honours the humble, the peacemaker, the compassionate and the just, but we seem to reward the arrogant, the wealthy, the hard-hearted and the corrupt, placing them into positions of leadership and remunerating them greatly. Yet too many of our leaders are bullies, braggarts and liars. Too many refuse genuine dialogue; they speak only to tear others down, build themselves up, and win political points. Too few show compassion; too few take responsibility for their actions; too few have a vision of a just world.
Next week, we will be choosing leaders for our congregation, and I hope it’s a no-brainer when I say that we are not looking for the arrogant and the proud! But what are we looking for? The book of Acts tells of a time when the early church needed to appoint people to positions of responsibility. The apostles decided not to select the new leaders themselves. Instead, they asked the congregation to choose from among them people of “good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Not people with a particular skill set, not the privileged, but those full of the Spirit and wisdom. If we are to follow their example, then our leaders should be chosen from among the regular attenders by the congregation; and they should be people who demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, that is, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
These qualities are rarely seen among our public leaders, and they are often mocked—but they are what we are looking for here. For they require courage, and they lead straight to Jesus’ honours list. It takes courage to be good: to stand up for justice when doing so causes others to mock and even attack you; it takes courage to exercise self-control, and not fight back. It takes courage to relinquish privilege, and to live humbly. It takes courage to be vulnerable, and to do the hard work of grief. It takes courage to live authentically, rather than hide behind the shallow masks our society hands out. It takes courage to pray and face our shadows, rather than fill our days with busy-ness and clutter. Living courageously, living a wholehearted life, means walking through conflict, refusing to retaliate, being vulnerable, offering and accepting forgiveness, seeking freedom, living joyfully, and learning to love. We may not see these practices among many political or corporate leaders, but then, we’re engaged in a very different project: for we are called to model a different way to the society around us, a way that is shaped not by and for the privileged, but shaped by God’s culture and God’s heart for the world.
Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven, God’s reality, is very close, and is even now sending shoots and sparks into our world. Like yeast in the bread, like salt in the soup, God’s culture is what gives this world flavour and life—and we are the bearers of this culture. So let us all pray for the courage to open ourselves to the Spirit, that God’s culture might blossom among us, and bear much fruit. And next week, let us choose courageous people full of Spirit and wisdom, to lead us in the year to come. Ω
A reflection for Sanctuary, 29 January 2017, referring to the Beatitudes in Matthew. My paraphrase of the text is here.