A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Epiphany 6 ~ Luke 6:17-26
(This was our Annual Meeting Sunday, so the sermon needed to be shortened to accommodate the extra meeting time. A fuller version was preached at the Sunday Night Worship service. Both are included here.)
I don’t have a lot of time this morning so I’ll be brief(ish). If you want to hear a fuller version of this sermon you can come back tonight! 🙂
So today we get Jesus’ beatitudes with a twist. We’re probably more familiar with the version in Matthew’s gospel usually called the “Sermon on the Mount”.
Well, first off, in Luke’s gospel this takes place on the plain, on a level place.
And second, instead of 9 beatitudes like in Matthew we get 4 beatitudes and 4 woe-to-you’s.
Please don’t think that means one of the stories is true and the other isn’t. It’s just proof that sometimes preachers need to say the same things over and over again, but in slightly different ways, in order to get their point across.
Do you really think that Jesus only taught these things one time?
He was an itinerant preacher. He probably gave a similar spiel in every town he travelled to!
The first thing we might notice is that a chapter ago Jesus was drawing big crowds but was just calling his first disciples. Today’s reading suggests he has a great crowd of disciples and a multitude of people listening to him.
How much of a buzz must have been circulating for that many people to be attracted to him?
And how did they know where to find him?
You get the sense there must have been a set plan, because thousands of people don’t just wander around on the off chance they might find Jesus!
It says this is a sermon on the plain, on the level place, as opposed to the mount. We theologize mountains as being up high and so the people felt “closer” to God – the whole “3-tiered universe” thing.
Well, plains are theologically significant because it indicates that God isn’t confined to our mountain top experiences – God’s Presence is right here with us on the level places, in the midst of daily life, where we most need it!
And I love Luke 6:19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Spiritual power is just emanating from Jesus here.
Maybe you’ve been in a room with someone who’s personal power and energy just seemed to radiate and fill the room.
Jesus had that in super-abundance!
And now the stage is set for us to hear his teaching. But before we tackle it there’s a really important cultural backdrop that we need to remember here. In their culture, the rich and healthy and prosperous were considered blessed – as in they were rich and healthy because they lived righteously and were rewarded for it.
And conversely, the poor and ill were poor and ill because they had somehow done wrong, or were sinful, so they also “deserved” it!
As ridiculous as that sounds to us I sometimes worry that we’ve held onto an echo of that harmful idea.
Against that backdrop, Jesus again utterly upends their understanding of how the world works – because he dares to suggest that it’s the poor who are actually blessed and the rich are actually deserving of woes.
Now, don’t go too far in the other direction – don’t make the same wrong conclusion in reverse.
Jesus isn’t just turning the tables on who’s blessed and who’s not – he’s completely changing the game.
At first it might seem like Jesus is pitting the have’s against the have-nots – giving blessings to those without, and woes to those with. I hope you’ll be able to see it deeper than that.
If we read it too shallowly we might be led to think that Jesus is a magic wand guy – promising riches for the poor, food for the hungry, laughter for those weeping, and reward for those put down.
And in the next breath he seems to condemn (woe to you!) those who are rich, fed, happy, and well thought of.
In other words, generally, people like you and me.
But we know that life doesn’t work on wishes and magic wands. So either Jesus is wrong, or we’re reading him wrong. I’d suggest the latter!
I think I can turn the entire passage into a supremely positive and yet still utterly challenging teaching by adding one word – spiritual.
If you add the word spiritual before each of these life conditions the reading takes a very different tone.
Listen to it again, with some paraphrasing:
Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are spiritually poor and know you need help, for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are spiritually hungry now, for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who spiritually weep now with a broken heart for the world, for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you because of your faith, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of your following my Way. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich, for you may think you don’t need spirituality.
‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will become spiritually hungry and not know what to do about it.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep once you awaken to the hurt of the world, and regret that you didn’t do more to help.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for it’s easy to gain favour when you never take a stand against injustice.’
Seen through this lens, it’s really a simple passage.
If your heart is open, the Spirit can work with it, and you can be filled with blessings.
And if your heart is closed because you feel like you’ve got everything you need then it might never dawn on you to realize you need God.
And yes, of course, there are “poor” people who are closed and “rich” people who are open – but generally speaking Jesus has a point. And his point is that complacency and contentment diminish communion – and spiritual hunger and thirst open us to accepting and revelling in the blessings that already surround us!
“Ok,” you might say, “that’s nice for us, but what about those people who really are poor, and hungry, and weeping? I get that it can’t be a magic wand, but doesn’t Jesus have anything offer those physically suffering. Is it only spirituality he offers?”
Great point. Here’s my response.
Who is most likely to help address the needs of the suffering in the world?
Which group of people is most likely to set aside their own stuff and dig in and reach out to others?
What might motivate a person to step out of their comfort zone and lend a hand, right a wrong, or advocate for a more just world?
People of faith living out the love of God that has filled and is transforming them are most likely to reach out.
People like you.
For me it comes down to this: If we fix the spiritual we fix the physical!
By that I mean that if we focus on deepening the faith of those who are open, we are, in fact, inspiring and resourcing those deep people to address suffering and reach out to others.
If you want to change the world you need to build up and resource the people who are going to take on the challenge.
And that, for me, is what churches are all about.
That’s what all those pages in our Annual Report are trying to describe.
We gather to go deeper – SO THAT we can have the inspiration, and strength, and vision, and capacity to go and love. And our love takes many shapes and forms.
So what shall we do with this?
We’re already here, so that means that we’ve already made that all-important leap to openness.
We are on the journey, trying to live the Way, striving to grow ever deeper with the Spirit’s help.
So I think it would be good for us to reflect on some of our own blessings and whoa’s – but I don’t spell it w-o-e, I spell it w-h-o-a – with lots of o’s and a’s – whooooaaaaa! – as in being amazed, and awed, and awash in wonder.
If you’re looking for blessings I’d encourage you to randomly turn to any page in that Annual Report and you’ll see blessings. You’ll see a report about faithful people doing faithful things. Then turn to another page and see more blessings. Yes, I know Annual Reports are generally a little dull in format, but the content, the things being described are anything but dull. They may not be flashy – humble ministry done in love is rarely flashy, in fact, it’s usually invisible – but they are definitely blessings.
Look around this place. This is a great building! What a blessing!
Last weekend we had this place packed for a praise and worship concert. What a blessing!
All those people sat on freshly cleaned chairs that a group of guys worked hard for a couple of days on. What a blessing!
When you walked in today you probably felt what I always feel when I walk in – even when the place is empty – there’s a palpable, positive, spiritual vibe here. What a blessing!
Everyone who is on a committee, or a task group, or involved with a ministry here stand up. What a blessing you all are!
We became an Affirming Church last year with an overwhelmingly positive vote. What a blessing!
We do significant outreach through our Church Work in Durham group and our Mission and Service givings. What a blessing!
Look at the person beside you and say, “What a blessing you are!”
What about the whoa’s?
A couple of months ago in Advent you contributed over $6500 to an Indigenous water project. Whoa!
And you’ve done that consistently for about a decade now. Whoa!
You ran a Christmas bazaar that was so packed it was hard to get into the building, and raised a great amount of money for the church, and had fun doing it! Whoa!
You are quite literally a textbook example of how to do a church amalgamation right as you took the best of challenging church situations and put them together to make a vibrant, vital, and viable new church! Whoa!
You excel at hospitality and we enjoy an abundance of food, refreshments, and fellowship after church every Sunday morning, and there’s almost always chocolate chip cookies! Whoa!!!
Faith United is overflowing with blessings and whoa’s!
We’re not perfect, we’ve got some stuff to attend to, but we can’t let those challenges ever displace our remembering how bountiful our blessings and whoa’s are.
I wonder what our blessings might be this year?
I wonder what we’ll celebrate next year at our annual meeting?
I wonder what will surprise us and make us all go “whoa!” this year?
Where might the Spirit move, in us, in you, in me?
I can’t wait to find out!
[night – Amen.]
We’ve still got a lot to do so I’ll need to leave it there.
I don’t want anyone saying “Woe to you for making the meeting too long!”
(And you can hear more if you come back tonight!)