United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds February 17, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Lectionary citations:
Jeremiah 17:5–10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12–20
Luke 6:17–26

Worship resources for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Year C, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Luke 6:17-26

Focus Theme:
Being Blessed

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

Many preachers may prefer 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 use Matthew's version of the Beatitudes, and avoid talking 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 preach "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."

It must have been 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" (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).

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 preaching reflections on Luke. "Salvation as reversal," he writes, "is deeply rooted in the prophets and in the Sabbath year and Jubilee legislation of the Old Testament (Deut. 15; Lev. 25)" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

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 (see his Provoking the Gospel series).

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 preach, this message of blessing and woe, in a culture as rich as North America. It's easier to talk about the 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 (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

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.

The "bias" of God toward the poor

Gustavo Gutierrez explains this "bias" of God: "God 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" ("Song and Deliverance" in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, quoted by R. Alan Culpepper in The New Interpreter's Bible, Luke).

Hearing the song of Mary again

So Jesus reminds us about what we heard, earlier in Luke's Gospel, in his mother's exuberant outburst, the Magnificat, which echoed the faith of Hannah many centuries before, singing of God's "project...the pattern of reversal between present suffering and coming joy" (Sharon Ringe, Luke, Westminster Bible Companion).

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.

What matters to Christians today?

Because we hear both the blessings and woes in this rare opportunity to preach on this text, we can highlight that 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" (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).

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 and preach. 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 (Svennungsen, New Proclamation Year C 2007).

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 react angrily when preachers "meddle with politics" when we shine the light of the gospel on such suffering. Eugene Peterson's version 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" (The Message).

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 (in Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions) in counseling "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?" (quoted in New Proclamation Year C 2007).

A "reign of generosity"

Svennungsen reminds us that all of this is appropriate subject matter for the church. Whether we're in the pulpit, leading 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 themselves.

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." 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 offer Wheeler's questions for reflection, not just in one courageous sermon, 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)" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

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" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

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" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). 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?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

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."


Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Thus says the LORD:
   Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
       and make mere flesh their strength,
       whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
   They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
       and shall not see when relief comes.
   They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
       in an uninhabited salt land.

   Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
      whose trust is the LORD.
   They shall be like a tree planted by water,
      sending out its roots by the stream.
   It shall not fear when heat comes,
      and its leaves shall stay green;
   in the year of drought it is not anxious,
      and it does not cease to bear fruit.

   The heart is devious above all else;
      it is perverse--
      who can understand it?
    I the LORD test the mind
      and search the heart,
    to give to all according to their ways,
      according to the fruit of their doings.

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow
   the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is
   in the law of God,
and on God's law
   they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do,
    they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
   but are like chaff
that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand
   in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation
   of the righteous;
for God watches over the way
   of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked
   will perish.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ--whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

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 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.
    "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."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."