Blessed are they

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 17, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Last week the lessons and the sermon were about God’s call and about Jesus’ calling his first disciples. Today’s gospel reading begins about a chapter later in the Gospel of Luke. In the meantime, Jesus had gone around with these disciples, preaching and healing. There were more disciples added, and then just before our lesson begins, Jesus chooses a group of the Twelve, who are also called apostles, which is a Greek word meaning ambassadors. Selecting twelve is almost certainly symbolic and it probably refers in some way to God’s choosing and caring for the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Twelve is a symbol of completeness.

So having completed the appointment of the Twelve, it is time for Jesus’ teachings to be presented.  Here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain, just as Moses did with the tablets of the law, and Jesus speaks to the gathered multitude, which is described as basically the whole world, not just Galilee, but all Judea and Jerusalem, and not just all the Jewish areas but also Tyre and Sidon, the coastal cities in the gentile area. So Jesus, in effect, is presenting this teaching to all the world. This entire long chapter of Luke is the presentation of Jesus’ teaching. It’s often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain and it is very similar to the Sermon on the Mount. Like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching here begins with Beatitudes, or Blessings. We know God through being blessed by God. Someone said this week that in these blessings, we know how God is with humans and in the Woes, we see how humans set themselves against God.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

God is here for us, strengthening us, comforting God’s children in all the difficult times of our lives. God is FOR those who suffer, God is WITH those who suffer or don’t have enough, God is WITH us when we lose—whether it is loved ones who die, or friends who move away, or institutions that change or decay. God is with those who mourn, giving comfort and strength, holding us patiently and without judgement waiting for that time that it makes sense for us to see that life goes on, and laughter can be in the future or even the present.

Jesus goes on to say something that is perhaps a bit more challenging to take in: “Blessed are you when people HATE you, and when they EXCLUDE you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man… for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” When I taught courses about early Christianity and how the early Christians were hated and persecuted in the ancient Roman Empire, I was often asked Why? Why didn’t the Romans just let those nice Christians be? An associated question is why did all those ordinary people put that nice religious teacher on a cross?

The more privileged lives that people lead, the more difficult it is to see the dynamics of anger and oppression. If you’re on the top of the heap, then that just looks like the way things are and ought to be—you’re totally happy to go along and be nice to everyone… as long as they don’t step out of line and suggest that something needs to change.

Notice that when Jesus talks about being blessed, he doesn’t talk about being angry or violent. What he does talk about is the prophets. The prophets spoke the word of the Lord—they expressed God’s compassion and comfort to God’s people. They expressed messages of hope and blessing. Exactly as Jesus does in today’s Gospel lesson. But what particularly characterizes the prophets is that they were bold in criticizing and denouncing the rich and powerful who violated God’s love for the poor; who exploited power for their own comfort while God’s people suffered.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is from one of those prophets, Jeremiah. He puts it like this: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Jeremiah was one of those prophets who had the most conflict with false prophets. Those false prophets pandered to the wishes and fantasies of the wealthy and powerful, making comfortable pronouncements that made the choices of the rulers easy for them—and totally wrong. So Jesus says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Think about this for a moment. If you automatically say just what you know someone wants to hear, it’s easy right? And there are plenty of social situations where that’s just fine. But now think of situations where what that person wants to hear is that it’s okay for them to hurt others, steal from those who have the least, ridicule those who are hurting or alone, laugh at those who are mourning. When we do that, we become false prophets. In fact, we make it harder for that person to wake up and receive God’s blessing of generosity and compassion. And those who want to be spoken well of that way, when they look for self-aggrandizement no matter the cost… well… as Jesus says, “Woe to you… for you have received your consolation.”

Jesus teaching is about blessing. It is people who curse themselves. God is present with us now, and blesses us in all our vulnerability, in whatever station we find ourselves. It takes courage to accept that blessing in the midst of all the cowards who put themselves against God, to be well-thought of, or rich, or those thousand other things that disregard God’s call to compassion, generosity, and caring community.  We join those disciples of Jesus, we are guided by the teaching of his apostles, we live in the blessings of Jesus and we give those blessings outward into our community.

Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,

nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,

And they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,

bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;

everything they do shall prosper.

Then he began to teach them

A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Then he began to teach them…

Jesus is our teacher. It is from him that we learn the truth. But sometimes it’s hard to recognize the real Jesus in the midst of all the fantasies and images that people put forward about Jesus. People have always tried to understand Jesus by seeing him as in some ways similar to themselves. The most popular image of Jesus is that 19th century painting, where he is in a shining white robe, looking like he’s about six feet tall, fair-skinned, with long light brown or sandy hair. I doubt that you could find a single person born in the eastern Mediterranean region 2,000 years ago that had any of those characteristics. Mostly it reflects the imagination of 19th century American ideals. But this isn’t really what I’m getting at:  Jesus teaches us, but we skip over things we should hear, and substitute things that we would rather hear.

Jesus teaches us about the freedom of God, and about our freedom, about abundant life in the Kingdom of God.  The teaching of Jesus is not hard to understand, you don’t need to have a college degree, or some special magic glasses. Jesus tells us the Good News, and how we are to live so that it is good news for us, and it is not too high or too hard for any of us.  The thing is, the Kingdom of God is in this real world that God created. And this real world was good enough for Jesus and he teaches us and leads us into that Kingdom. And you don’t get there by cheating, by ignoring what Jesus is teaching and making up your own kingdom.

Jesus was walking with his disciples. The sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark just before this, was that Jesus fed the Four Thousand, then there was a controversy with the Pharisees who demanded a sign, and a discussion with the disciples about the danger of the Pharisees and of Herod. Then Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus fed. He taught. He healed. Now he’s walking with his disciples and he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” There’s no trick and no secret here. The disciples knew the buzz about Jesus, and they answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets.” These were good people, known for telling the truth, for challenging people and leading them to God. This is what the disciples were hearing from all over; even Herod was afraid that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life. And then Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, the most outspoken leader of the group, spoke for them, “You are the Messiah.” For Peter and the rest, Jesus was more than a prophet—he was the anointed one of God, the one who was to lead Israel into the Kingdom of God.

But then … Jesus began to teach them. Jesus told them about the real world, about what would happen to this teacher and prophet.  This is how Jesus told the disciples about the Resurrection from the Dead. But they were working on a different story of who the Messiah was, and what Jesus was teaching was not what they were prepared to hear; Peter and the rest had already filled in the blanks with their own story. That story was magical and wishful thinking, not the real world that we live in. Of Course. If you are wishing for things, you don’t wish for suffering and rejection, certainly not for your beloved Teacher. Of course, you wish for God to make things fine and comfortable for everyone. But Jesus wasn’t wishing, he was teaching, and he was teaching about the real world. Peter thought that he had the power to protect Jesus. He did not. He thought that he had enough dedication and commitment to stay with Jesus and never reject him, and he thought that others would also stay with Jesus and not reject him. He was wrong. On both counts.

I have talked about suffering in other sermons. Certainly the question of suffering is here in this lesson, and it is real and important, but I want to talk about another piece of this.  Jesus was teaching about being engaged in the real world, in what actually happens. And in fact, he was not talking dismally and hopelessly; he was describing how you get to the resurrection of the dead. Peter wanted to skip the uncomfortable steps and it just got past him that in doing so he was also missing the resurrection. We live in a world where people usually want to skip over the uncomfortable, workaday steps of real-world existence and go right to already having their goal, which is usually power, privilege and wealth, in one way or another. In that selfish skipping over reality, it is other people who get skipped over; it is generosity and caring that are lost. It is abundant life that this world loses in striving to be the top. Jesus brings abundant life, and he teaches it this way: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Jesus teaches us, would we but listen. Jesus is the Wisdom of God as we hear in this passage from our Old Testament lesson:

Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city she speaks: “… For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Jesus calls us to be wise and not fools—to live in this real world, faithfully, without fear, and without the distortions of self-serving folly. We rejoice in the constant love of God. God has given us this real world, filled with abundant life, the opportunity to live in generosity, in the midst of God’s love for his children.