While I lead prayer regularly, it is rare that I get the opportunity to preach. But having been very involved in the organisation of the Birmingham Churches Together 24 hours of prayer hosted by Carrs Lane last weekend (more on that to follow) I was also invited to be part of the Sunday morning service which rounded the whole event off. If you are going to only preach very occasionally, some would suggest that doing it when completely sleep deprived might not be the best plan ... on the other hand, doing so after spending the previous night and day praying and being inspired by the beauty of the church and all it could be is probably no bad thing. Anyway, this is, if you're interested, what I had to say:
I want to reflect briefly on how the beatitudes, for me, speak into the experience of both consolation and transformation.
I suspect I am not the only one to say I love the beatitudes; even if they have risked becoming clichéd and losing something of their radical power through overexposure. The beatitudes have inspired me to draw and to write. They have, I hope, more significantly, helped inspire me to live the life I am called to.
It seems to me the beatitudes come in three parts (like all good sermons). The first ones speak of those things which just are, over which we have often have no, or very little, control: places into which the God of consolation enters. When things are tough, just because they are, there is no sticking-plaster God who comes to make it all better. God does not promise we will not know poverty or mourning, but he does promise a greater joy. Blessed, or happy are they. This is no clichéd “it’ll all be ok in the end” God, rather it is the invitation to discover great depths of love and joy.
But that is not the end. The gospel doesn’t stop with this consolation. It doesn’t stop with this offer of unconditional love. By beatitude number 3, Jesus has moved on. These next beatitudes are no longer about things that just are, they are about things that can be. Things made possible by the unconditional love of God. The gospel which calls us forward into places of transformation. They Gospel that says not only can you do and be these things, but that they will be sources of deep joy. Made possible by the love of God, these beatitudes are those which we continually journey towards with faltering steps. Experiencing the depths of joy we discover in radical choices made as a response to the transformative love of God inspires us again and again to take new steps in the direction of our calling. I could give so many examples of living this experience of the blessing of joy leading forward to new places. Stepping out in front of armoured vehicles at the London arms fair, surrounded by others in prayerful protest; discovering hope amongst those who have been to the depths of human experience in my volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers ...
So what next? Well, the word blessed, or happy, aside the last beatitudes don’t make for particularly cheerful reading: promising, as they do, persecution and hardship. I don’t believe this is Jesus telling us to seek out suffering for its own sake: no, I think this is something both much simpler, and much more challenging. I think this promise is nothing more than the inevitable consequence of truly living out the other beatitudes. If we really do all that other stuff, if we truly dare to challenge injustice, and power and violence and the status quo, then we aren’t likely to be winning any popularity contests any time soon.
Which brings us back to where we began... because if we are going to live lives so radically transformed by our faith that they challenge the very fabric of society we need first to experience, the consolation of God’s unconditional love, and we need to keep returning to it again and again.
And here we are, drawing to a close 24 hours of a space to do just that... because this is the source and summit of that love: to open ourselves to God in prayer; not to do ro even to ask or to thank, but simply to be. Not just by ourselves but as a community, knowing we are loved by God both individually and together. The last twenty four hours have been a truly beautiful experience: a real celebration of our diversity, as well as of our unity in seeking this promised joy. For me at least, it has served as the inspiration I need for the next steps, whatever they might be, with and towards they God who loves me and wants me, and all of us, to know great joy.
*Probably ought to acknowledge a degree of plagiarism from my husband for a few of the ideas!