Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a very shy clergyman. So shy that he spent most of his life as a lecturer in Mathematics at Oxford and hardly ever, as far as I know, officiated at services or preached. Indeed he was only ever ordained deacon and never became a priest.
But he is famous the world over for his fantastic imagination and ability to describe the maddest of worlds. Lewis Carroll, which is the pen-name he used, wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, two amazing books which were written for children (one child in particular of course, Alice Liddell) but like most good childrens’ books have fascinated generations of adults too.
I don’t know if he ever preached about the Beatitudes – as I said, I don’t think he ever preached very much – but of all the passages in the Bible that would probably be the closest to his heart.
Because – as we have been learning over the last several weeks – the morality of the Gospel, the morality of the Beatitudes, is indeed a looking glass world. Jesus’s preaching turned the world upside down and the world’s values inside out.
The world says, the poor are failures. That those who mourn should stop being so emotional and get on with life. That the meek, who allow themselves to be pushed to the back of the queue, deserve all that they get. That those at the front of the queue get fed and why should they worry about the hungry? Mercy, I’m sure President Trump would say, is for wimps. As for purity of heart, well we’ve moved on from the Victorians. And in an era of posturing and outdoing one another in stockpiling nuclear arsenals, peacemaking is a pointless exercise.
Such is the world this side of the looking glass. The normal world that we all inhabit and whose values we take for granted.
Now Lewis Carroll’s looking glass world was indeed mad, and often cruel. The looking glass world of Jesus isn’t like that. But in the same sort of way it turns upside down the expectations that we have. Lewis Carroll doesn’t so much reverse the values of the world, but reveal them for all the hot air and nonsense they often are. For example:
‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.’
Nations have gone to war for less than this. The Kings and Queens, and all their retinue, are just chess pieces that Alice picked up out of the hearth. It’s all cut down to size. We see through the bluster and bravado of the powerful.
Well of course the Gospel goes further. As we might expect. ‘The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.’ It’s a looking-glass sword, a contradiction of the weapons of war and injustice, this weapon of peace and justice.
But it’s a weapon none the less. Christians are not called to be pushovers, to be the ones who always give way and allow evil to triumph. So often we give the impression that God wants us to be nice people. To be polite and well-behaved like middle-class Guardian readers who shop in Waitrose. There is a sense that if we are Christians we shouldn’t be uppity.
If you look in the hymn book at the next hymn we are going to sing (number 177) you will see it is followed by a bowdlerised version. We’re no longer soldiers, it seems, just servants; we don’t fight, just strive. We’re not fighting a battle, just on a rather long and dreary hike.
Well of course the military imagery of the bible can be and has been misused. Empires have claimed the name of Christian and tried to claim that secular might and power and the values of the gospel are on the same side.
But it’s important to remember that we are involved in a battle. It’s not against flesh and blood but against evil; evil that seems to be becoming more evident in the world around us. We are called to take up arms, not physical ones but spiritual ones. We are called to fight as soldiers by resisting the cruel and inhuman forces that want to manipulate people for their own ends.
It’s a looking glass battle though. As the words of our Lord that we have been studying for the last few weeks make clear, God’s values and God’s priorities are the total reversal of the world’s.
Hence the final ‘beatitude’, the final sentence in Jesus’s list, is ‘blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.’ And that one is so important that he continues, repeating and reinforcing it: ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you…’
Persecution is real. Those who stand up for the values of the Cross are going to suffer for it. Those values are not things like calling Christmas Christmas, or refusing to bake cakes for gay people: those people who complain that that is ‘persecution’ need to get a life.
Persecution is what happens to ordinary people when they stand up to bullies and bullying forces. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was declared as a saint only the other week, who was shot dead at his altar because he dared to challenge the evil regime in his country, El Salvador, and support the thousands of poor people in his flock. Some people are persecuted for who they are, for their ethnic origin or their religion: 80 or so years ago the Holocaust is seared into the memory of Jews everywhere. The horrors of this, and the courage of many who suffered, shows that martyrs need not necessarily be Christians. We’ve been reminded recently that the Nazis are still with us in many ways: the murder of eleven Jews who were in prayer in Pittsburgh last week is only one particularly horrific example.
There are many others, of Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of no religion, who stand firm in their faith when they are attacked. There’s no shortage of examples but a recent and particularly nasty one is the imprisonment, and death threats, to Asia Bibi in Pakistan after being falsely accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad.
If people have died for their beliefs, traditionally in the church they are known as martyrs. There is a saying that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’; in other words, when one Christian is killed, many more spring up in his or her place. Many of the Apostles ended their life as martyrs, and from then on, especially in the early days of the Church, there have been many more.
That’s how we come to celebrate All Saints day. Often in those early days, the remains of the martyrs were placed under the altars of the early places of worship, and Christians gathered round these tables to celebrate Communion knowing that they were sharing in fellowship with their courageous predecessors.
They would especially remember them like this on the day of their death, their heavenly birthday. Then people began to think, well, we know of many other brave Christians who weren’t actually killed for their faith, but were certainly holy people who would have stood up for Christ if attacked. It’s not their fault they weren’t actually martyrs. So the Church came to recognise them too as saints, and realise that they too were sharing in the heavenly worship.
If you look in the front of the Book of Common Prayer, or Common Worship, you will see the church’s calendar for the whole year. And you will see the names of hundreds of saints, who represent only the tip of the iceberg. Far too many for us to count or take in.
There are only 365 days in a year. It’s not possible for all these thousands, millions of saints to have a special day of their own (except to those who knew them personally), so the Church decided to celebrate this day when we commemorate God’s ordinary people, God’s holy people, men and women and not a few children, from all centuries and all cultures and all ethnicities.
They all witnessed to the upside-down, looking-glass, values of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Or rather, they witnessed to the real world, the world of God’s kingdom, which challenges the upside down, distorted values of this world. We are called to transform our world into an image of God’s kingdom.