Epiphany 6. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley on 13th February 2022

This morning’s Gospel is St Luke’s version of what we know as the Beatitudes – usually known as the sermon on the Plain. Matthew, in his version, has Jesus up high on a mountain whereas Luke places Jesus on level ground. Some scholars suggest that this is the earlier version – I’m not qualified to explore that idea, but I am interested in the fact that these Beatitudes are delivered on that level ground. Level ground, a level playing field; is there something in there about how we see one another and pointers around the ways that we are connected to other people?

The reading gives us a list of the kinds of people who are blessed; they may be in difficult circumstances now, but the promise is for change. And for those who may be sitting back and enjoying their privilege, a warning that nothing is for ever. Change is likely to be somewhere around the corner.

St Ignatius, in his spiritual exercises, picked up and developed this thinking. Ignatius’ focus is on spiritual experience, and what he says is that when you have a meaningful experience, savour it and bank it.  Store up the memories of how that made you feel because you can be absolutely sure that at some stage things will feel different. One way to manage the more difficult times when they come is to draw on the stored memories from better times. So Ignatius says that we should anticipate cycling through encouraging and challenging experiences and use the good times to help us get through the less good times. If we have a powerful experience of God’s presence, or a moment when we’re touched by the presence of the Spirit, those are the moments to savour. And when, inevitably, we have moments when we wonder where God has gone, moments when we feel alone, drawing on those stored memories might just be enough to help us to navigate through the more desolate times.

Our lived experience, in all areas of our lives, can help us to hold onto the knowledge that transformation isn’t just possible, but part of what it is to journey through our lives. Let’s hold that thought as we go back to the Beatitudes.

The hungry will be filled; those who weep will laugh. You may be reviled today but you will be rejoicing tomorrow. You may be well filled today, but there are no promises for tomorrow. Whatever this day has brought – or indeed this season in your life – don’t go forward on the assumption that there is no alternative. Sometimes rich people lose all their money and become poor people. Sometimes those who have nothing find their fortunes have changed and they have more than they could imagine.

I guess this is a description of levelling up, a good reminder that while some of us have more than others at the moment, those differences can’t be taken for granted. For a whole lot of reasons, fortunes can change. This morning we’re being reminded in very stark terms that there isn’t really a them and us – that there is just us. Those people whose lives are more challenging than ours today, may well be our neighbours tomorrow. Those who are in a position to reach out and help others today may need to be the recipients of help tomorrow.

Having money in the bank doesn’t give insurance against unexpected disaster – having nothing doesn’t equate with being unhappy. How then should we respond? Both as individuals and as a worshipping community? Clearly doing nothing, supporting business as usual, isn’t any kind of response to the challenge that we’re hearing. Business as usual means that we burrow into our silos – whether they are places of encouragement or places of challenge – and we hang onto whatever feels familiar. And don’t imagine that people only hold onto the positive places they find themselves; the familiarity of feeling bleak, the internalised feelings of despair and lack of hope, can also offer a kind of comfort because people learn how to manage them.

We are being called out of those silos and onto the plain. We’re being called to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts and to find a way to soften the boundaries we see between people in different situations. We’re being called not just to reach out to people in need, but to see them as people first and then to respond in whatever way we can to their needs.

This is about reaching out, but it’s about reaching out from an understanding of our commonality, rather than from a sense of our differences. I may have more money in my pocket than the person I see begging on the street, but I may or may not have a better understanding of what it is to be empathetic. We’ve all read stories of people in the most challenging circumstances who find ways to make a difference within their communities. Their motivation may be, in part, to feel better about themselves, but it may also be because they understand better than many of us what actually makes a difference.

If we are able to peep over the edges of our silos, we may see other people doing the same thing, wondering about who we are and what we’re about. That may be especially true of us as a community. As we emerge from the pandemic, as people begin to evaluate what they have learned, what has changed for them, we know that many people have found themselves wondering about what goes on within places of worship. The experience of taking services online has allowed people to take a look, to observe from a place of safety.

A building like this can look, and feel, like an enormous silo. We talk about ways to make this a safe space, a place for peace and reflection. And that, of course, is some of what we seek to offer. But it can only be on offer if we can help people to engage with us, to risk walking into a space that they may perceive to be ours not theirs.

And that is the challenge. It’s too easy for us to make this space ours, to want it to be just as it is – cold and all – because we know how to be in this space. We have unwritten norms that we don’t even notice, because that’s what we do and who we are. We may not truthfully want change.

For the person who isn’t yet one of us, that’s a whole agenda that is almost impossible to penetrate. But, of course, we as a community are much more than this imposing building. We are the living stones that inhabit this building – and its grounds. Our space is both inside and outside, through the doors and on the grass. There shouldn’t be a distinction between the sacred space inside the walls and the sacred space out there.

We do have a responsibility for our space; we happily take on that responsibility because the space makes a difference for us, allows us to manage the cycles of hope and despair, of joy and sorrow. We will have taken a significant step toward levelling up when we find ways to make this a space where everyone can belong – when we can find ways to break down those artificial ideas of us and them and to simply open our doors and our grounds to all who are seeking something that transforms; when we can find ways to say ‘this place helps us to live through life’s cycles, please bring your experiences into our shared space and let us support and reach out to one another.’

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