« International Sunday - February 10, 2019 - Sylvia Weston | Main | Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 3, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart »

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 17, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

It is sometimes said that preachers have one thing they preach about. One, or maybe a few themes, that they are always coming back to. I try not to fall into this trap. I hate to think of myself as repetitive or, God forbid, boring. But, if I’m honest with myself, there are some things I often fall back on. And one of those is joy. The words of Jesus in the Gospel of John where he says, “I have told you these things so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” That’s often bouncing around in my head.  And I come back to it quite a bit.


And so with that I’m caught off guard a little bit by today’s Gospel where Jesus says, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”  It doesn’t make the top 10 list of Jesus’s most fun teachings.  “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” In this next year, St. James’s will be thinking about its communication and how it shares itself in the world as the new parish hall and building grows around us… but I bet this Gospel won’t get too much consideration for a new church tagline. ‘Woe to you Porter Square.” Probably not.


What’s Jesus up to here?  Well, it’s helpful to know a little bit of Biblical backstory. In some of the early portions of the Hebrew Scriptures in books like Deuteronomy, there is this theology that gets called “blessings and curses.” There’s something to it, I think, but for its earliest hearers it got crassly and hurtfully misunderstood as implying that, if you were good and faithful to God, it guaranteed worldly success, and affluence and riches, and happiness. And if you weren’t faithful, then you’d be poor. Then you’d be sick. Then you’d be marginalized.  And what makes this thinking not only wrong but hurtful is that lended those that had privileges to think they earned them and those that didn’t hadn’t. That those in poverty or illness or other form of destitution deserves that somehow.


And so, later in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the prophets there is a reaction against this. That sometimes “bad things happen to good people.” Indeed tragedy is often utterly random and takes no account of its victims. And the ancient prophets remind us that injustices were often put in place by those in power to protect their privilege.  


Jesus picks up on this prophetic reaction to blessing and curses theology and takes it even a step further. And as he does so, I find he is not only responding to the misunderstanding of ancient Israelites but also to misunderstandings of 21st century Christians… misunderstandings of you and me.  When I’m preaching about joy… or about healing… or about peace… or about shalom… or about wholeness… or about finding our true identity… it can sound quite like a religious spin on modern pop psychology. And Jesus was no self-help guru. This is not to say that following Jesus doesn’t take us to a place of joy and healing and wholeness, But that sort of thing is secondary.  Jesus was calling together a communal way of love and interconnection. A beloved family. An utterly inclusive community of love with God at the center as generative source and as the one who is worshipped… and then out of that comes joy and healing and peace. Communion with God and with each other and with stranger and enemy and all creation. That’s first. Our individual psychological, and physical, and spiritual health, it’s a byproduct of being drawn into that beautiful divine mystery that Jesus called the reign of God. Whenever we think it’s just about me, or whenever it’s a dividing some us from them, we’ve lost the bigger picture of what Jesus is inviting us into. And all of us, definitely me, fall into that trap.


And so it’s for that reason that I think Jesus hits his disciples over the head with his teaching about woes and blessings. One Biblical translation I liked rendered the word woe as danger.  So, Jesus is saying,


“It is a danger to you when you are affluent because the contentment there is hollow and full of poverty.

It is a danger to you when you are healthy because your body will, at some point, betray you.

It is a danger to you when you are in a good place emotionally and you try to settle into that place, because the rug very well may be torn out from under you by the world.


It is a danger to you when your root too much of your sense of dignity in your standing in the community, how you are perceived by others, because that will fall away and you will not be remembered.

If is a danger to you when you are insulated from suffering, death, and dying, when you live as if you are immortal because you are not.


But you are full of abundance and blessing when you are poor, because you reach out to God without the false security of financial resource.

You are full of abundance and blessing when your body is in any need, because God does bring relief.

You are full of abundance and blessing when you suffer in your heart or in your soul, because God will be your solace.


Here I want to try to hold two things that are in some level of contradiction. On the one hand, I believe it to be true, what liberation theologians call God’s preferential option for the poor. The stories of the Bible and the lived- experience of saints past and present demonstrate that God shows up particularly with those that suffer… those in need… those that have less. It’s not that poor people are universally morally superior to those with means. It’s simply that poverty so breaks God’s heart that that is where God goes. It occurred to me this week that we could call our God a God of Injustice… because wherever there is injustice, God is right there. This is one thing that I think is absolutely true. And, at the same time, there is a poverty in all our lives that brings God to us. I think of Mother Teresa saying the poverty of the west is an equally desolating poverty of love and loneliness and spirituality. All of us have some parts of our life where there is loss and lack and woe. I think about members of our congregation who aren’t with us today because of illness or trips to the hospital. I think about members of our congregation who aren’t with us today because of an illness that is unlikely to be cured. I think about members of our congregation who are currently away at the funerals of loved ones. I think about members of our congregation who have some means but still live with constant stress about finances. I think about members of our congregation whose relationships are breaking. I think about members of our congregation who are alone. For all of us, there are times when life is not as it should be. And in those times we more acutely hear Jesus’s call into the loving community of God.


One last dive into today’s Gospel from Luke. It’s interesting to contrast this story with how Matthew tells it in that Gospel. In Matthew, it’s the more well-known Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is up on a hillside preaching down to the crowds, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit…”  In Luke, Jesus comes down off the hill onto a level place… a plain. He’s in this huge crowd… a crowd of disciples and those that have come to hear Jesus and those that have no idea what’s going on. There’s folks from near and far. There’s folks that are Jewish and folks that are not Jewish.  Given the size of the crowd, surely there were people that were younger and people that were older… people that were lighter skinned and people that were darker skinned… people that were queer and people that were heterosexual or cisgendered… you name it… they all were there. And Jesus was right there with them.  He comes down from the mountain… enters the crowd… healing emanates from him… and, as the story goes, he looks up at them. He sees them. And he says, “Blessed… are… you…” Blessed are you. In Matthew, it’s “Blessed are those who… yada, yada, yada.” In Luke, it’s “Blessed are you.”


Jesus comes down to the level plains of our lives, scatters healing love indiscriminately, looks into our eyes, tells us we are blessed and loved… and then helps us to see… right there on those level plains where we find ourselves… that those places that seem empty and depressing and hopeless to us… right there… Jesus shows us how that all- inclusive community of God is where we already are. We just don’t see it.


Last week, St. James’s awarded its Absalom Jones award to Kendall Gedeon for her work with the Food Justice Team and the Helping Hands Food Pantry. Now Kendall is organized and bright and charming. She’s got a lot of gifts. But the stories that I hear that impress me most are about her being part of an intentionally relational part of the food pantry. She goes out way to have conversations with guests. And that relationship building in the food pantry is not secondary to the handing out of food, but is every bit as important because it creates dignity, it identifies gifts and blessings, and it creates a mutuality that breaks down the us versus them dynamic that prevents community. Kendall does what Jesus does. She comes. She looks folks in the eye and connects with them. And though she probably uses different words, she reveals that they are blessed.


May we go and do likewise.