Sunday, February 11, 2007

Epiphany 6 - Year C

I guess it depends on where you’re sitting as to whether you hear good news in today’s gospel reading.

If you were there that day then you might think, wow, this Jesus guy has a huge heart. He’s everything you want in a preacher: he’s kind, he’s gentle, he understands the depths of human suffering and his soft words soothe the anxious soul and grieving heart.

“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.”

Then he gets to part two, and Jesus’ eyes squint, his teeth clench, and his words harden, and he slips into attack mode. Blessings turn to curses. Love turns to anger. Sermon erupts into rant.

“You rich folks, you were good at working the kingdoms of this world to your advantage. Now in God’s reign you will be cursed.

“For those of you who are full, stuffed with all that can be consumed in this culture, having found so many ways to satisfy your hunger, what more can God do for you? In God’s coming reign you shall be damned to emptiness.

“Wipe that smirk off your face, you self-satisfied ones. There’s a new saviour in town. Time for tears.” (Willimon)

I don’t know if folks were surprised by the vehemence of Jesus’ sermon. If they were they shouldn’t have been. After all, Mary warns us in her opening song in Luke that a Messiah was coming who would cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly; the poor are fed and the rich sent away empty. It’s clear from her little ditty that God takes sides, that if we want to find who God is, we shouldn’t be looking to the heavens; we should be looking down underneath us, and all around us.

It’s hard to think of God taking sides. After all, doesn’t God love EVERYONE? Didn’t Jesus die for the WHOLE WORLD?

I know how uncomfortable that sounds. I hesitated before writing it. But how else would you describe what Mary was saying in her song?

If that wasn’t enough, think of two weeks ago when we heard Jesus’ inaugural address where he said that he was fulfilling what the prophet Isaiah said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So, if Jesus’ sandpaper sermon came as a surprise to his disciples, then they weren’t paying attention. Or they simply chose not to hear him.

But they were awake now. No one was snoozing through this sermon. There were grumblings from the front row, but cheering was erupting from the cheap seats.

This was different from the way Matthew tells the story. He only has part one of Jesus’ sermon. He includes the blessings but leaves out the curses. He points to heaven as a reward for putting up with a small, pitiful, human existence, and the rich get off scott-free.

But Luke seems to glory in Jesus’ sayings about poor people being lifted up and rich folks getting run over by the divine steamroller. Theologians have picked up on this and even made up a term for it; they call it: God’s preferential option for the poor.

I don’t know about you, but that rubs me the wrong way. It tells me that I’m not at the top of God’s priority list; that God’s preference is for someone else. I may not be living high off the hog, but to many folks around the world and even to some here in Lethbridge, I’m living large.

It tells me that because I won the cosmic lottery and was born into a part of the world where I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep or what I was going to eat, and that because I had access to a good education, and a good doctor was a quick phone call away, that somehow, I get penalized for it.

It tells me that I’m cursed for working in a decent paying job and for having a good looking resume. It tells me that all my hard work means nothing.

And when I look to the scriptures for an explanation, trying to figure out what God is up to, I’m left with these cold hard words: blessed you who are POOR, for YOURS is the kingdom of God.

But there’s no wiggling out of it. Try as I might, I need to take the bible seriously, and the bible tells me that Jesus spent most of his time with people who were dirt poor; folks who were pushed to the edges of their world. He had little time for people who wanted everyone to think they had it all together. In fact, Jesus said “beware when people speak well of you.”

He certainly doesn’t make it easy to be a Christian, does he?

So, okay, Jesus, just so we’re clear. Are you saying that my master’s degree and all the toil and effort that went into becoming a pastor mean nothing?


Are you saying that working hard to put a roof over my kids’ heads and food in their mouths is sheer silliness in God’s eyes?


Are you saying that all the time and effort I put into building relationships and nurturing community count for nothing in the kingdom of God?

You’re missing the point, Jesus would say. Why would God want to show up where God isn’t needed? Why would God bother with those who already have all they want? Why would the Great Physician go where no one needs healing?

If you want to see where God is, Jesus seems to be saying, look in the eyes of a teenager dying from cancer. Look at the swelled belly of a starving child in Africa. Look at the clenched fist of the man who just buried his wife.

Then look in your own heart, run your hand along the cracks, cracks that you tried to tell yourself weren’t there.

Then – maybe – God’s curses turn to blessings. The greedy become generous. The grieving sing songs of gladness. The hungry eat until they’re about to burst. The dying leap from their beds, restored and renewed.

Maybe it’s like how Paul puts it in today’s second reading, “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 died.”

In other words, we are not the source of our own hope. As much as we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, hard working people, Jesus seems to be saying that God is more interested in our wounds than our victories. He seems to be saying that God cares more for our grief and sorrow than our achievements and successes.

I think Jesus wants us to remember that he accepts us and wants us when we are broken, limited, sinful, and struggling, long before we receive or want him.

Where we would put ourselves and each other down, Jesus bends down to lift us up.

Where we heap judgment and blame upon each other and ourselves, Jesus tenderly forgives and accepts us.

Where we are filled with despair or overwhelming sorrow, Jesus loves us with a love which renews us.

And maybe then he'll call us “blessed.” May this be so among us. Amen


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