United Church of Christ

Being Blessed

Sunday, February 17, 2019
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 1)

Focus Theme:
Being Blessed

Focus Prayer:
God, you root those who trust in you by streams of healing water. Release us from the bonds of disease, free us from the power of evil, and turn us from falsehood and illusion, that we may find the blessing of new life in you through the power of Christ. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Luke 6:17-26

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: '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. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 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. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 17:5ñ10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12ñ20
Luke 6:17ñ26

Focus Questions:

1. What do possessions mean to you?

2. What's the difference between "cheap" and "free" grace?

3. What do you know "for sure"?

4. How do you react to the crowd around Jesus?

5. Is the Good News too great a challenge for contemporary Christians in a capitalist society?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

We may prefer to spend our time on another text from the lectionary this Sunday, perhaps the consoling message about resurrection in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. Some of us find it easier to wait until we have the chance to read Matthew's version of the Beatitudes, and avoid thinking about the woes we find in Luke's account.

Unfortunately, even Matthew's Beatitudes are not the "spiritualized" version many claim them to be, and when Jesus is talking about God's love for the poor in spirit, we can be assured that he is talking about God's love for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the powerless, the stepped-on, pushed-down, left-out, and crushed. And it's pretty hard to imagine how a person who is any of those things would not also be "poor in spirit," if we read those words to mean broken in spirit, depleted, empty.

A missed opportunity

But what an opportunity is missed when we avoid this passage and focus only on "other parts" of the Good News! In chapter four of Luke's Gospel, Jesus had famously stirred up his hometown folks in Nazareth by announcing that Isaiah's prophecy of good news for the poor was fulfilled in their hearing that day.

Today, after a time of prayer up on the mountain, Jesus has gathered his disciples and brought them down to a place accessible to many people, many different people, including even Gentiles and the crowds of people who have been marginalized because of disease and unclean spirits.

The text says that he heals not just a few but all of those who come to him, hungering in so many ways, for dignity and acceptance, for wholeness and health, for forgiveness, freedom and hope.

Jesus, on the level

This difference in Luke's account--with Jesus speaking on the same level as the crowds, rather than from above, up on the mountain (as in Matthew's Gospel)--is significant, Renita Weems notes, as Jesus addresses "people with very little to offer beyond their enthusiasm and their devotion. But they are the beginnings of his new movement who, despite their poverty and need, recognize the presence of something new and powerful happening around them."

This is a moment fraught with possibility and hope, even for those who have felt hopeless and abandoned.

According to Weems, there is even significance in the way Jesus addresses the crowd, using the second person rather than the third--"Blessed are you," not "those who"--because Jesus is speaking "intimately and compassionately to the crowd" and "identifies with the crowd by standing with them rather than above them."

Telling the story in his own way

Luke's version of this sermon differs in other ways as well, according to David E Holwerda, who notes the difference in length (Luke's account is much shorter, at 30 verses, compared to Matthew's 107), but there are also half as many Beatitudes, and--perhaps most notably--the four woes that are added, the warnings, we might call them, to those who refuse to hear and embrace these core teachings. We might say that they are the logical consequences of turning away from God's vision for the world.

Holwerda places these verses within "Luke's theology of Jubilee or his theology of reversal," which we often mention in these Bible studies on Luke. "Salvation as reversal," Holwerda writes, "is deeply rooted in the prophets and in the Sabbath year and Jubilee legislation of the Old Testament (Deut. 15; Lev. 25)."

These teachings, then, are ancient; Jesus is not just making things up. As Richard Swanson often puts it, Jesus is singing the old, old songs of his people.

Jesus means what he says (and does)

In a sense, Jesus talks the talk after he has already walked the walk, and we come to know who he is as much by what he does as what he says. In his compassionate response to human suffering and his firm persistence in the face of criticism, we learn that the Teacher means every word he says.

And here, in the Sermon on the Plain, he says what he means, too. Since he is proclaiming here, early in his ministry, what "the Reign of God" is all about, we sense that he is laying out the plan not only for those new disciples and the crowds that join them, but for us, too: what it means to be his followers.

Alas, this is a hard message to hear, this message of blessing and woe, in a culture as rich as North America. It's easier to talk about the wonderful promise of resurrection, and avoid the woes.

A challenging text

Ann M. Svennungsen has not avoided or softened this message one bit. On the contrary, she challenges us to read this text and to hear God speaking to us today, in our own setting, about material possessions, poverty, and the suffering of so many of God's children.

It's tempting for comfortable Christians to resent liberation theologians who speak of God's "preferential option for the poor," but Svennungsen directs our attention to Jesus' teaching here that the poor are "blessed," that is, favored by God.

Gustavo Gutierrez explains this "bias" of God, who "has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God's will." So this "privileged position of the poor" is based in God, Gutierrez says, "in the gratuitousness and universality of God's agapeic love."

Hearing the song of Mary again

So Jesus' teaching reminds us of what we heard, earlier in Luke's Gospel, in his mother's exuberant outburst, the Magnificat. According to Sharon Ringe, Mary's song echoed Hannah, many centuries before, as she sang of God's "project...the pattern of reversal between present suffering and coming joy."

The mighty may be flying high now, but they will be brought low, Mary sang. Those who are pressed down will be lifted up, the empty filled, and those who are full will taste what it feels like to be empty. The "woes" say that God examines the human state of affairs and is displeased. Even more, God is going to make things right.

What matters to Christians today?

Because we hear both the blessings and woes in this text, we can deepen our understanding of the Reign of God as "an era of reversal," Renita Weems writes, "turning things on their head, a new order of things" that is inaugurated by Jesus' own ministry.

How have we Christians managed to wander so far from such an understanding, focusing on fine points of doctrine, exclusionary teachings and practices, and, often, finding a level of comfort at the amassing of incredible wealth in the society around us?

A desperate, hopeful crowd

Weems notes the desperation of the crowd that day on the plain, "eager to sign on to any revolution that promises them a share in the world in which they live." She then offers a thoughtful reflection on what we ourselves might be desperate for, and names one possiblity: certitude.

We want to know, for sure, exactly what we have to do or say or believe. We want "to know for certain that in following Jesus [we] are on the right path." Weems notes, however, that no one can offer that kind of certitude; instead, as in every age past, we are offered "a way, a journey of faith."

In these texts on discipleship and teaching and crowds that hunger for good news, that is the underlying lesson for us in this Epiphany season, the season of manifestation. We are shown who Jesus is, God's own Beloved, we hear the Good News he brings, but we are also called to respond, and to follow in the way of blessing, not woe. How we respond, how we live, what we do, matters.

At ease with poverty

For example: There is no question that poverty is still a national disgrace in the United States, where many of us live our lives and practice our faith. Ann Svennungsen notes that too many children go to bed hungry every night, even though Henry Kissinger predicted many years ago that this tragedy, this disgrace, would be a thing of the past by 1984.

And it may be true that a significant number of people in our society have no problem sleeping at night in spite of this fact, and even react angrily when preachers "meddle with politics" whenever they shine the light of the gospel on such suffering. However, Eugene Peterson's version (in The Message) of Jesus' consoling words to his disciples, when he predicted the reaction they would get, is true for preachers and faithful followers of the gospel today: "What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable."

Hope and challenge

Happily, many Christians who are uncomfortable with the suffering of the world really want to hear a word of hope and challenge from their pastors. And Svennungsen offers the thoughts of Sondra Ely Wheeler as counsel for "Christians who seek to live faithfully within an affluent society."

Wheeler offers excellent questions for Christians as they examine their lives, questions about our ability (our "liberty") to hear God's call, free of the distraction and even burden of possessions; questions about the way we make decisions in our life and the values those decisions reveal; questions about how much our own comfort and possessions "rest upon and help to perpetuate unjust structures and institutions"; and finally, questions about whether we can justify "the present allocation of our material resources in light of the needs of those we call sisters and brothers?"

A "reign of generosity"

Svennungsen reminds us that all of this is appropriate subject matter for the church. Whether we're in the pulpit or the pew, leading or attending Bible study, worshipping together, making decisions in our congregational life, being in ministry with our neighbors near and far--in all these settings, addressing issues of economic justice springs from our commitment to biblical values.

While God blesses us all, of course, and God's grace is poured upon us all, rich and poor alike, we might pray for the grace to participate in the "reign of generosity" proclaimed throughout the Bible. We might come to understand the difference between God's abundance and our excess.

This approach, of course, does not harmonize with the currently popular "prosperity theology," which has enabled many Christians to live quite comfortably with their wealth, to see it as a sign of God's special approval of the way they conduct their lives.

Conflicting messages

Svennungsen says, "Our money, like every single area of our lives, is subject to the will and direction of God." On the other hand, she tells us that our culture says, "You are just one purchase away from true happiness." We can contrast that message with Jesus' reassurance of blessing even for the poorest and most powerless among us.

And rather than avoid these most uncomfortable (for many but not all of us) woes, we might consider Wheeler's questions for reflection, not just this Sunday, but in an ongoing conversation within our congregations about what it means, truly, to follow Jesus. We might be strengthened in our resolve if we remember another lesson that recurs often in the Bible, including Luke's Gospel: "Do not be afraid."

Power and vulnerability

Power, advantage, and privilege come in many forms, and we often hear those words used in discussing our political differences. I think we should also focus on vulnerability, powerlessness, and need, not as a matter of pity but as a way to adjust our perspective. God's perspective, it seems clear from Scripture, is a compassionate gaze upon those most in need, those most vulnerable, those without the power to improve their lot.

David Holwerda traces many of the Old Testament laws (as well as the teachings of Jesus, up on the mountain or down on the plain, throughout his ministry) to God's desire to help those who have "trouble making their way in the world." Laws regarding the Sabbath, no charging of interest, gleaning, etc., "provide the poor with the economic base which is essential to guaranteeing both a livelihood and personal liberty (Jer. 34:13-17)."

How it should be

Lately (especially), I hear myself thinking, "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer." Maybe we are more than discouraged; maybe we're tempted to think that's the way things are doomed to be. But Holwerda calls us back to the way God wants things to be, and why God gave ancient Israel laws about how the poor are to be treated: "These rights and obligations are also rooted in the goodness and justice of the created order."

Well, we look around, and things often don't resemble that beautiful created order much at all. But we Christians believe that we are headed toward a heavenly banquet, where everyone has a place at the table; scholars remind us that we are to live more fully, more intentionally, in the "already" part of "already but not yet" nature of the Reign of God. Holwerda writes, "The shape of God's future must shape our present."

When Luke's Jesus offers those woes as warning, I remember that grace is free and abundant, but not cheap. Or, as Holwerda puts it, God expects the rich to use their wealth on behalf of the poor, and if they don't, "God's eschatological reversal will place them outside the eschatological blessing." It's as simple, and as hard to hear, as that. I wonder if our theme this week might be better stated as "Being Blessed (Or Not)." Or perhaps, "Being Blessed: Now What?"

A powerful tradition

The United Church of Christ gives thanks for God's abundant blessings throughout its history, and we dream of a ministry unfolding in ways we could never have dreamed of back in 1957, when our denomination was formed. Much of this ministry has been supported by the faithful generosity of our ancestors in faith who shared their blessings with the world through the church.

How is your church, your ministry, embodying this dream of God, bringing good news to the poor, not a word of temporary relief but good news of a world transformed? How are you connected with other churches throughout the United Church of Christ, accomplishing together so much more than any of us could on our own?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

E.A. Bucchianeri, 21st century
"Be wise today so you don't cry tomorrow."

Carl Gustav Jung, 20th century
"The Wrong we have Done, Thought, or Intended Will wreak its Vengeance on Our SOULS."

Robert G. Ingersoll, The Christian Religion An Enquiry, 19th century
"There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments--there are consequences."

Jamie Arpin-Ricci, 21st century
"Forgiveness and consequences are not mutually exclusive."

Jane Addams, 19th century
"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life."

Paulo Freire, 20th century
"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

Albert Camus, 20th century
"You are forgiven for your happiness and your successes only if you generously consent to share them."

Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, 19th century
"Everywhere you will find that the wealth of the wealthy springs from the poverty of the poor."

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 21st century
"We need more hope. We need more mercy. And we need more justice."

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