On the inaugural address of one of the greatest world leaders in human history
15 February 2017
Homily preached in the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre 13 February 2017, following a reading of Deuteronomy 30.15-20.
“See I set before you today two ways in which you can walk, the way of life or the way of death, the way of blessing or the way of curse.”
During the last few weeks I have listened to, and then re-read several times, the inaugural address given by one of the greatest world leaders in human history.
I am referring of course to the Sermon on the Mount. There is a certain sense of providence that parts of this foundational text of Christianity should appear at the present time for several consecutive weeks in the lectionary used by many of our churches. We have indeed just been singing together its stellar opening verses, the Beatitudes. The one who spoke these Beatitudes both opened and concluded them by offering the promise of inheritance and citizenship in his kingdom to representatives of perhaps the most unlikely groups. That day that he stood up there on that hilltop and set out his manifesto, there was absolutely no empty space anywhere around: the whole place was packed. It was great.
Some considered it a real pity that his term of office seemed to have been cut short after only three years. So sad.
Of course, others said, what could you expect. The signs had been there from the beginning of his life, that there would be problems. After all, when he was a baby in Bethlehem he was visited by three Iranian men. Herod’s wall of fortresses flanking the eastern boundaries of the country hadn’t managed to keep them out. They said that they had been following a star. Some story. They brought gifts for the baby. Gold… well that makes sense, leaders are going to need gold, bright orange gold, plenty of it. But Myrrh… what does that mean? So sad. Surely it must have been part of the plan of those Iranians for radicalising the child, even when he was less than two years old. I reckon that’s when things began to go wrong.
His inauguration speech on the hill divided its hearers. He offered them dreams and visions, but he didn’t seem to realise that he needed also to offer them wealth, hard cash. Incredibly he even told them not to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Not a good strategy if you want to hold on to their votes, and have them support you when the going gets tough. The defence policies that he set out in the speech didn’t prove too popular either: especially the one about turning the other cheek.
And then he also made some unwise choices when he gathered his group of apprentices. The ones he called disciples or apostles. It must have been obvious from the beginning that several of them were completely unreliable. Some of them were prone to outbursts of temper, others asked too many questions. A couple of them had absolutely no sense of leadership. Complete losers. He had talked in his inaugural address of building a house, a tower, on solid rock… but most of the apprentices were just like wet sand. They should have been fired. The early apparent termination of his mandate was due in part to the failure of some of them. Total disaster.
He certainly had his problems with women. Believe me. He let them get far too close to him, even to touch him. There was that literally bloody woman who grabbed him by the corner of his garment, and another who insisted on rubbing him – his feet – with her hair. So dumb. I am sure that there was some connection between his attitude to women and how he ended up. Indeed one of them had the gall even to pour oil all over his head as though she was preparing him for burial. Such a waste.
Then there was the healthcare question, his healthcare programme. Many felt that he got that wrong too. Basically he prioritised the sick. He healed them freely without asking for anything in return. All of them, rich and poor. All sick people were equal in his sight. He didn’t think that those with disabilities were unclean, or stupid, or a corporate or national joke. He actually believed that they were all human beings created in God’s own image. Made him very unpopular. It messed up the system that said you had to keep the lame and the blind and those with leprosy out of sight and out of holy places. So strange.
Perhaps it took him a bit of a while but he really came to believe that foreigners mattered. Not only was he willing to heal them, but he even seemed to think that he and his people might have something to learn from them. He didn’t want to keep them out of his kingdom. That Samaritan he mentioned. He suggested that we could learn from a Samaritan just what it means to be a neighbour. It’s crazy but it’s true.
And do you know that when the powers that be eventually decided they had had enough of all his alternative facts and they brought him in chains before some so-called judges, that he turned the table on those who were accusing him. If you had been there that night and that morning you would have wondered who was judging who, even when they condemned him to death.
But, so amazing, that was not the end – but rather a new beginning. The apprentices, the women, the foreigners, the sick, the poor, they all realised that death could not hold him, that he, the truth, was too powerfully real to be held hostage by lies and hatreds, that he had risen from the grave to break down the walls of partition that divided human beings. It absolutely wasn’t fake news. It was a gospel that all of them wanted to trumpet. It meant that to their amazement fishermen who had never been more than a couple of days journey from home, now found their insularity and patriotism and prejudices challenged and journeyed across lands, and continents and seas, to share the vision that they had glimpsed that day at his inauguration address on the mountain-top, that day when he had lifted up the veil and shown them the realities of the kingdom of God. They discovered that not only were they to look at the light set on a hill, but that they themselves were called to be the light.
They didn’t always get it right, and they still don’t and we still don’t even today. But in their hearts, and in our own hearts we know, because we have learned from him, that in this upsidedown kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate, that it is true, so very true, that it is the last who will be first and the first last.
See I have set before you this day the way of life and the way of death. So choose life that you and your descendants may live.