This is the message from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on Luke 6:17-26:
Jesus came down with the twelve 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.”
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Last week we talked about some of the material that comes between the portion of Luke’s Gospel we read last Sunday and our reading this morning. In the text last Sunday we heard about Jesus teaching from Peter’s boat, directing Peter to a wondrous catch of fish, then calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow him. We connected that story with a passage from Ezekiel to show that the focus of this story is on the wondrous catch of fish as a sign of the dawning of God’s reign. The summons to follow Jesus was a call to gather all people into this new creation, this dawning of God’s grace and life. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were not being asked to join a religious club, but to join God’s mission of reconciling all creation.
It was important, last week, to touch on the material between the wondrous catch and our reading today to better understand last Sunday’s text. And we need to do so again because we are jumping over sections of Luke’s gospel. Presumably we are skipping parts of Luke’s account because we read these stories from other Gospels in other years but, unfortunately, this means we can lose track of the thread of Luke’s narrative. So just as a reminder: Luke is the Gospel that gives us the familiar nativity story about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song. Luke is quite clear in his narrative about the presence of Roman imperial rule, but the poor and the powerless receive God’s promise and recognize in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise to come and reign.
Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God and God declares that Jesus is God’s beloved ‘Son’ – a royal title indicating that Jesus is invested with the full authority to speak for God and to dispense the gifts of God. At this point, Luke inserts an amazingly honorable genealogy for Jesus that goes back through David and Abraham all the way to Adam and to God. When the devil attacks Jesus to show that he is unworthy of such honors, Jesus never breaks faith with God. Jesus is worthy of the title he has been given.
Jesus returns to Nazareth, but the people in his homeland are outraged when Jesus stops his reading of the prophet Isaiah without reference to God’s wrath on Israel’s enemies and they refuse to recognize Jesus as God’ s anointed. When he cites scripture to show that God’s grace and mercy are for all people, not just Judeans, they try to kill him. The story foreshadows what will happen in Jerusalem. Israel’s leaders will declare that Jesus is speaking falsely about God and seek to invalidate everything he has said and done by handing him over to be crucified. But, just as Jesus walked untouched through the murderous crowd at Nazareth, God will vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.
After Jesus leaves Nazareth, he comes to Capernaum where he is received as true, and great crowds are healed and delivered from evil spirits. When Jesus teaches by the shore of Galilee, and the crowd press in to hear him, he gets into Peter’s boat to teach. Jesus then demonstrates the dawn of God’s day of grace by the abundance of fish, and summons Peter and the others to follow him to gather all people into the nets of God’s mercy.
They leave everything to do that.
So the mission of God has been announced and disciples summoned to gather all into God’s grace. Jesus then goes on to embody and bear witness to this mission. He touches(!) and heals a man with leprosy; the man is an outcast and Jesus restores him to the community. While Jesus is teaching, the friends of a paralyzed man carry him to Jesus and, when they can’t get in the door, climb up on the roof, pull apart the branches shading the inner court, and lower the man down. Jesus releases him from the debt of all his sins. The Pharisees go crazy, but Jesus heals the man and he walks away restored to his life, his family and his community.
Jesus then calls Levi, a local tax gatherer, to be one of his disciples. Levi is a despised person, working for the imperial powers who are stealing the lifeblood of the community. By the very nature of his job, he is an unclean person. But Jesus eats with him and his companions, gathering him back into the community of Israel.
Jesus is pressed by the Pharisees about the failure of his followers to observe the customary fasts and he declares that you cannot fast in the presence of the bridegroom. These are all signs that the day when all things are made new has begun in Christ. The reign of God is at hand – which, in Jesus, is a day of grace and not judgment, a gathering of all creation into the nets of God’s mercy.
The conflict with the Pharisees continues over the rituals of hand washing and Sabbath observance. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, they begin to plot his destruction.
Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and summons twelve of his disciples to be his apostles, to be sent as special witnesses of his mission. Jesus then begins to teach both them and the crowds about the nature of God’s reign – and this is where we pick up today.
Luke has gathered a collection of Jesus’ teachings and assembled them here. It is similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain (our translation said Jesus stood “on a level place”). Where Matthew imagined this moment as something like Moses at Mount Sinai giving God’s instructions, Luke envisions it as something more like Moses’ exhortation in the book of Deuteronomy when Israel was about to enter the land after their journey through the wilderness. It declares who God is, what God is about, and what it means to live God’s way. It announces the reign of God and teaches us how to live that reign.
Both Matthew and Luke start their account of Jesus’ teaching with a list of beatitudes, and it’s important that we understand what these words mean. We tend to talk about blessings as if they were the good things we have in life. We talk about our many blessings and we have in mind our children (maybe our grandchildren) and things like our family, our spouse, our home, our health – all those things we tend to mention around the thanksgiving table. Those are all great and wonderful blessings. We are fortunate if we have them. And all of us have something for which to give thanks. But the word Jesus uses here doesn’t refer to those kind of blessings, those things we refer to as good fortune.
There is nothing fortunate about being poor or hungry or grieving, and we do God and the scriptures a terrible disservice if we try to say that the poor are somehow fortunate. The woman in my parish in Detroit who needed to heat her house with a space heater attached to an extension cord that ran through a window from her neighbor’s house isn’t fortunate. The man who spent Michigan winters in a window well in downtown Detroit with newspapers for a blanket wasn’t fortunate. The mother who lost her son to suicide wasn’t fortunate. The young couple who lost their newborn to an asymptomatic ruptured appendix wasn’t fortunate. And the six-year-old girl who stole food from church to feed her grandmother and two younger siblings because her mother was a crackhead wasn’t fortunate.
There is nothing lucky about being poor or powerless. This word translated as “blessed” is speaking about honor. The poor and powerless are honored in God’s sight. The hungry and grieving are the recipients of God’s mercy.
And they are honorable because they receive and embrace the reign of God. They embrace the kingdom. They embrace the vision of shared bread. They do not steal what belongs to others. They do not reject those who are poor. They do not regard those who are sick as unclean. They embrace this dawning world of faithfulness to God and one another.
When the Bible talks about the rich and poor, these words are not fundamentally about material wealth. Honor is more important than money in the world of the scripture. Your reputation, your place in society, your family land and your family name, these are things that matter.
And in the Biblical world people understood all these things as fixed commodities. As I have said before, these are like land. There is a finite amount of land, so if someone is going to get more land then others are going to lose theirs. If someone is going to get more honor, then others are going to lose it. The most important thing in that society was for a family to protect what was theirs, whether it was their land or reputation. A person who lost their place or position or land was called ‘poor’. You could lose your position because you got sick and became an outcast, or because you were lame and couldn’t work, or because you lost your land and had to work as a tax gatherer, or because you were childless, or became a widow, or because you were a foreigner.
And what do we see Jesus doing? He is restoring people to their place in the community. He made Levi a disciple. He forgave a paralyzed man and returned him to his family. He touched and healed a leper, bringing him back inside the community. And he called Peter and his companions to help in this work.
The poor are honored in God’s sight. God’s mercy, God’s deliverance, has come to them. And they have embraced this kingdom where all are welcome, where all are cared for, where all are reconciled.
But how shameful are those who take instead of give, who do not embrace God’s way of grace, who take people’s lands, who take advantage of the powerless, who plunder the widow and ignore the orphan. How shameful those who do not share their food. How shameful those who live for the praise of others rather than the praise of God.
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This message was from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on the assigned Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in year C. The other readings on that Sunday helping to shape the message were Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, and 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.
© David K Bonde, 2019. All rights reserved.
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