Over the last, few months as I have been preparing these reflections and thinking about the Beatitudes, I have constantly been amazed, confronted and challenged by Jesus’ words. The whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is a challenging manifesto for ‘Kingdom living’ – living as the community of God’s people. I have also struggled to understand, in specific ways, what we are called to do and be when we follow Jesus and ‘walk the edge’. What does it mean for me to walk the edge? What does it mean for me to embrace Jesus’ ‘Manifesto of the Kingdom’ in the beatitudes of Matthew 5 (in fact the whole Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) seriously in my life? It is relatively easy to theorise and engage these themes with the mind but what does it mean to have them written on our hearts? What are the implications for our hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth…? In other words, what does Jesus expect of those who follow him?
The trouble with this kind of question is that we normally respond theoretically, programmatically or institutionally but Jesus invites us to follow on the road. As a minister of a diverse congregation of largely middle-class people on the fringes of Parramatta, I know the difficulty with this kind of question. Our middle class values and culture often get in the way of Jesus’ call. We are not the wealthiest people in Sydney (or the world) but are far from the poorest. We aren’t the most powerful people going around, but far from the least powerful – we have a lot of control over our own lives and can make decisions for our own well-being. We find ourselves caught up in a culture that is pervasive, often subtle and seductive. This culture is also deeply unhealthy and in many points far from the Kingdom of God. There is a powerful force in our culture that some have called ‘affluenza’ and it is the push to become upwardly mobile, materialistic and acquisitive. Affluenza is the urge to have more, to prove oneself and keep up with those around us. Though we may resist, we are constantly bombarded with advertising and subtle messages that work on our subconscious and without realising it we give into buying things we are told we need only to realise later we have been conned. Many, for example, are queuing up for the new Windows platform (‘Vista’) despite warnings that it is nowhere near ready. It will also involve many computer owners needing to upgrade and replace perfectly good computers with newer, faster, bigger ones, that will perform only as fast and as well as their old ones, but with new gimmicks.
In terms of our theme, ‘Walking the Edge’, we are invited to walk on the edges of our culture. We don’t have to believe (in fact shouldn’t believe!) the values and subtle messages of the world around. Another of those whom have inspired me (the last reflection spoke of Bonhoeffer, King and Romero) is Henri Nouwen. Unlike the other three, Nouwen wasn’t a martyr but like the other three, he gave up his life for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Nouwen was a very successful academic, author and speaker. His writings have inspired millions of people. He invites us into deep spiritual places, to engage in the inward journey of the Spirit and hear the voice of God. Nouwen has been an inspiration for me in learning to listen to the quiet, gentle voice of the Spirit amidst the plethora of other voices all around me. These other voices often undermine confidence, hope, grace, compassion, justice and mercy. They are voices that gently, subtly and persistently question the wisdom of faith in Jesus and following the Spirit. Nouwen calls me into the deep place of contemplation, silence and solitude to hear God speak, to be encouraged and nurtured in the truth of God and to be energised and empowered for life in the Spirit. In order to walk the edge of culture I have to listen to another voice that offers another way. I can’t do that if I don’t stop, tune out to the other noises and voices, and listen to the ‘still, small voice’.
Nouwen, himself, left the academic world (although he still wrote and spoke to groups) and followed a call to become the chaplain to the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada. The L’Arche communities are communities of people who have different abilities. There are various levels of intellectual and physical disability and all are valued, belong, and contribute to the community. Nouwen was responsible for the care of a severely disabled young man. He wasn’t able to do anything for himself and needed full time care and support. When asked about the sacrifice he had made in giving up everything to care for this young man, Nouwen was surprised. He replied that he received far more from this young man, who exuded much grace and love, than he gave. Nouwen discovered grace on the edge. When he walked to the edge, leaving behind a respectable, popular and successful career, he discovered grace and a community of inclusion, grace, love, peace, joy, compassion and justice.
The beatitudes invite us to let go of the values, obsessions and cultural pressures that are not grace-filled, just or reflect God’s Kingdom. They are an invitation to let go and trust in God with all our being. They are a way of life, not a list of rules to be observed. They are values that fill our being, not rules to be religiously applied. The beatitudes help us walk the edges of culture, society and life in our community. They also invite us to walk the edges of faith, love, hope, peace and justice, and to live with compassion, grace and mercy.
The call of Jesus is a call to engage, but the manner of engagement will be different for each of us. Some are called to the deep life of prayer and contemplation. They are filled with the deep wisdom of God and become voices in the wilderness, inviting us back to Jesus’ way. Others are activists who engage in world-changing action that is tough, determined and costly. Still others are called to give up everything and live amongst the poor and marginalised to incarnate God’s love in the harsh places of our society and world. Many others are called to engage in a life that is lived in the cities, the suburbs or the rural communities of this nation to live speak and breathe the life of Christ in those places. The beatitudes exhort us to a way of living that trusts God, mourns the pain of life, is humble and sensitive, yearns for righteousness and justice, is merciful, pure in heart, lives peacefully and makes peace and endures the persecution of those who are opposed to God’s purposes in the world.
A few years ago, I was encouraged to meet the principal of a local school for children who have intellectual and other disabilities. Following that meeting, our congregation was invited to come into the school and offer support and care to the children and staff. We invited a senior class to our Friendship Group (a regular gathering of around 50 people who have morning tea, a devotion and then engage in various crafts and bowls). Whilst the school wanted the children to engage with other adults to help their socialisation in preparation for life beyond school, those of our Friendship Group were blessed and discovered great joy and inspiration from these young people. From there, we were able to set up a ‘drop-in centre’ when senior grades come and play table tennis, pool, basketball, karaoke and computer games for a couple of hours a week. We have been part of their school camps and now offer Scripture classes. My own involvement has been one of discovering these children who exist on the edges of society. They and their families often struggle to make it. There is a great deal of stress and living with these disabilities can be intense and hard. They are always grateful for what we are doing for them. I always feel grateful for the privilege of being allowed to go into the school and share a little of the lives of these children. When we were invited to walk this particular edge of our local community, we discovered grace, joy and community. We have also experienced the presence of God’s Kingdom – close at hand!
The edge places that we can walk are everywhere around. Where there are sick people, we can visit and pray. Where there are hungry (for food, hope, meaning or anything else!) we can feed. Where there are people oppressed or captive, we can offer release. This might be captive to expectations that deny them freedom and life. They may be captive or oppressed by addictions, loneliness, guilt, anger, grief and so on. Where there are people who don’t belong, we can welcome them into the inclusive Kingdom of God, a community of grace. Where there is injustice, we can speak out or do something to alleviate the injustice and bring hope.
I hear some of the most beautiful stories where ordinary people do simple things that gracious and lovely. The elderly woman who listens to another woman on the bus and feels her pain and sadness and so follows her up, praying and listening and being a friend. People who visit sick children and their families in hospital, or elderly people in nursing homes or the community. People who cook for neighbours and friends (sometimes strangers) who they know are doing it tough. Others who turn up to clean or for a coffee and chat in times of stress or illness. People who respond to other’s hurts and invite them to church because they don’t know what to say or do but know that within the community of God’s grace there will be someone or something that can bring hope and peace to their lives. People who pray and pray and pray. There are others who work in places where there are the normal range of human experiences. They listen when other people’s lives are unravelling. They point the way for those who are lost and searching. They walk with others through sad and difficult times. These are some of the normal edges of life where the Spirit can move, heal and bring grace – when we are there to be a channel for God’s activity in the world.
I want to close this series of reflections by saying that to Walk the Edge is to place our lives in the hands of the Living God and find your security in God alone. Go where God leads you. This call will be diverse across the life of God’s people, but for all of us it will cost something, in this world’s terms. On the other side of the ledger, it will lead us into the state of blessedness, the place of the Kingdom of God. We cannot do this in our own strength and so meeting together with others who can encourage, inspire, nurture and work together for the sake of God’s Kingdom is vitally important! We need each other and that is where the Wellspring Community is so important.
We also cannot do anything in our own strength. We need to stop and to listen to the voice of God. We need to spend significant time (quality not necessarily quantity) in the presence of the Spirit to be moulded, nurtured, empowered and inspired. So, let us walk together, following Jesus and fulfilling Jesus’ prayer ‘may your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!’ May God be with you as you walk the edge with Jesus!