As Christian, how important is popularity? Is popularity what matters?
In our Valley Worship services this year (which are at 10am at St Mary’s Easton on the third Sunday of each month) we are doing a series on the sermon on the mount (as it appears in the gospel of Matthew) which begins with a series of statements about being ‘blessed’. The word in the original Greek is ‘makarios’ which essentially means ‘favoured by God’ or ‘happy’. So they read like a series of paradoxes: Blessed are the poor, Blessed are the hungry, Blessed are those who weep, Blessed are you when people hate you’
In other words: ’Happy are the unhappy!’
The essence of Jesus’ answer is that dependence on God, rather than self enables us to find that settled joy, that happiness, that blessing…..
So we are spending this year at Valley Worship looking at the architecture of happiness, how dependence on God turns these undesirable things: poverty, hunger, mourning and hatred into joy…
But this morning at our Book of Common Prayer Communion we are looking at Luke’s relating of Jesus words on the mount.
Luke adds an element, which does not appear in Matthew’s account. He enumerates some ‘woes’ after the blessings. As a contrast to those who are blessed, those who are happy, he says, ‘woe to those who are rich’,’woe to those who are well fed’‘woe to those who laugh’ what does he mean?
Is he talking about us? Is he talking about me?
The problem with what the world regards as blessings: wealth, food, shelter and the laughter: the superficial happiness that may flow from having these things, is that they encourage a sense of self sufficiency which is fatal to spiritual growth.
I think we don’t get the whole impact by this odd word ‘woe’ which is a translation of the Greek word ‘ouai’ (‘ooo-weh’). It sounds so much like the sort of thing one of the witches in Macbeth would have said ‘Woe Woe Woe…..’ either comical or threatening…..
So this doesn’t really convey what Jesus is saying. He is really expressing compassion: ‘how terrible’ ‘alas’. It is an expression of regret for people who think they can stand on their own two feet, without any dependence on God.
But the particular woe I want to focus on this morning is the last: ‘woe to you when all speak well of you’.
I have often found it difficult to know where to draw the line as a vicar. And I think every Christian finds this problem. It’s deciding how far to go between being popular and being a pain….Sometimes I have been one and other times (probably most of the time) I have been the other!
But Jesus is saying, ‘don’t worry about being popular’. Indeed, ‘woe to you when all speak well of you for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets’.
In my prophetic role as priest in the parish (and that is part of my role to speak truth into our situation in Itchen Valley – not so much fore-telling the future – as forth telling how God views us in the Valley) and indeed in our prophetic roles as Christians in our families, villages and businesses, we are not always going to be popular.
Indeed, we should not always be popular because if we are doing our job as Christians, if we are being salty, if we are being a light on the hill, we are going to challenge some of the idols in people’s lives; things that are very sensitive, things that they hold dear.
If we are popular all the time then we are probably ‘false prophets’ because as one theologian writes: ’universal popularity cannot happen without sacrifice of principle’.
But, on the other hand, no-one wants to follow anyone who they suspect does not love them.
Recently, Revd Julia Myles from Alresford showed me this way of looking at things…Imagine a series of concentric circles. The central one contains the word ‘Safety’, the inner one ‘Stretch’ and the outer one ‘Panic’.
Where do you feel in your life as a Christian at the moment?
Where do you feel in your life as a member of Itchen Valley Parish at the moment?
You see it is undoubtedly the most popular move for a vicar; the most popular move for a Christian, is to keep everything in the inner circle – safety.
As a vicar, I could choose to be just entertaining and everyone would say ‘he is so wonderful’ and everyone would feel good. Or as a Christian in our workplace or family or amongst our friends, we might just keep our head down and go along with what everyone else is doing and saying, but remain in silence when we see something that we know offends God, to avoid being unpopular. And some people think that is the role of a rural vicar or a Christian, they think that is loving….to be silent.
Or, alternatively, of course I/we can put everyone we encounter from time to time into the stretch category, by our words, and, most importantly, by our actions, represent a challenge to others and the things that they find important. As people get used to being stretched in this way the area of what they think is safe expands and we grow spiritually.
Or I/we can put us everyone into the realm of panic….where for example we might say to someone we meet for the first time ‘have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb?’ which is a perfectly theologically correct thing to ask…as a Christian….but not exactly small talk….quite weird actually; not the way to build a relationship which will lead that other person to know Jesus Christ which pushes that other person into the sphere of panic; which has the results of everyone being angry with us and not be willing even to be stretched, running back to safety.
Paradoxically, even what is the same as it has always been, can feel uncomfortable if we have been panicked. The slightest difference to the way that a service is conducted for example can be seen as a conspiracy….this is because if we are panicked, we don’t think we are loved.
But this is a two way process. Sometimes a vicars, or as Christians, we will go too far and panic will ensue…but equally we need to be willing to be stretched by the prophetic guidance of our Christian leaders, by our priests, by our bishops and those everyday Christians who are further on the journey than we are. As Christians, we need to be brave and we need to be willing to risk our popularity in speaking out prophetically in our families, amongst our friends and at our work.
But, as St Paul says in 1 Cor 13, all our prophetic speaking must be motivated by, and done in love, it is to be worth anything at all.
But if it is motivated by love, then our prophetic voices will not be those of false prophets but will be the voice of God in our generation and lives will be transformed.
Blessings and Woes
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.