Sunday, February 17, 2019

Blessed are you ....

A Sermon preached on Epiphany VI, Feb. 17, at St. Augustine’s Wiesbaden
Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26

I subscribe to a quarterly publication called “The Anglican Theological Review.” The last edition was all about preaching and one of the articles, entitled “Two Thousand Years of Great Sermons,” looked at 10 examples of great sermons. The first one in that list was Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, the extract from Luke’s Gospel we just heard this morning.
Why is this sermon great? Apart of course from the fact that our Lord and Savior Jesus preached it! According to the author of the article, one thing that makes it effective is its structure. “The parallel structure (four “Blessed are the”; four contrasting “Alas for you”) make it easy to understand when heard, easy to remember.”[1] Sound advice, I shall try and remember it myself.
The other great sermon element Jesus uses is paradox, which means “an idea contrary to common opinions and popular belief, and Jesus first words are precisely that,”[2] contrary to popular belief. Now there’s a lot of paradox in Christianity. Death is new life. The last shall be first. Jesus is fully divine and fully human. From Arianism onwards, the belief that Jesus was just another created being, albeit the first one, heresy always arises from the refusal of paradox, and from the desire for simple, black and white answers.
Where is the paradox in Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain? Well surely, Jesus’ listeners will have thought, and most people still think today, that it is the rich, the well-regarded, the well fed, and those who have reason to laugh who are blessed or we could just say happy, because that is what the original word also means. After all, is not prosperity also a sign of God’s favor, perhaps even of God’s election or selection? That is certainly what the rich and powerful have always liked to think. But Jesus turns this logic on its head. It is the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated on account of the Son of Man who are blessed and have reason to be happy. And instead the rich, the full, those who are spoken well of who need to worry.
Jesus is not saying that poverty is a good thing or that the poor should just suffer in silence, and simply look forward to some future reward: that would be religion as the opium of the masses as Karl Mark once described it. In his view, religion reduced people's immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions, while preventing them from seeing the oppression around them, and the need for radical change. No, when Jesus says that you are blessed when people “hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man,” (Luke 6:22) he is issuing a call to speak up for change in his name, just as the prophets of old spoke of for change and for justice, and were persecuted for it. And that change and his agenda of the kingdom of God is not meant for the hereafter but starts in the here and now.
That is why Jesus goes on to warn the rich and the powerful and the complacent that they are in trouble with God, unless they change. He wants change, he wants everyone to love God and their neighbor. You do not love your neighbor if your wealth comes from his or her poverty, and on a global scale that is really where much of our prosperity comes from today. And you do not love your neighbor if you make no effort to change this situation, to fill the hungry and to give them a reason to laugh.
That has not changed at all in the last two thousand years. Recently, we and our societies seem to have become more selfish, ever more unwilling to share our abundance with others. Take the issue of refugees for example. It sometimes seems as if our discussions are now only about how to keep those who flee from war and poverty out or send them back as quickly as possible. And in some countries, most recently the UK, International Aid is being redefined simply as a policy or business promotion tool: In a recent paper from a Conservative Party think-tank, the authors argue the UK “should be freed to define its aid spending unconstrained by criteria set by external organizations,” (by which they mean not keeping to the already pitiful and minuscule 0.7% spending goal on aid), and the purpose of such aid should be expanded from poverty reduction include “the nation’s overall strategic goals.”[3] So we won’t help poor people where they, and we won’t let them in to our countries either. Woe indeed to us all!

But this passage is not just about morals and ethics, important as they are. There is another layer of meaning, another reason for the paradox of upside-down blessings and woes, and it is spiritual. In the Old Testament passage we heard first, from Jeremiah, that prophet talks about just one woe or curse and one blessing, not four of each. Being Jeremiah, he starts with the bad news. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5) That was how he felt most of the people of Jerusalem and Judah were thinking and acting. That they could rely on their own strength and might, and on clever political alliances to keep them safe. They still went to the Temple and made sacrifices, but that was just lip-service. In their hearts they did not think they needed God. But the Lord tests the mind and searches the heart and can see through such an outward show of devotion. Only those “who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (17:7) are blessed, Jeremiah says.
Jesus calls the poor blessed, because they knew they had nothing to expect from the world, but everything to expect from God, and from the kingdom of God that Jesus promises. He holds them up as an example, nor for their poverty, but for their attitude, and their willingness to look to God, and to turn to God for help. Those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord, are the ones who are also willing to undergo the spiritual transformation God offers, making us the fully human beings we are intended to be as creatures made in God’s image.
When Jesus issues his four woes, his four warnings to the rich and the powerful he is also warning them against relying completely on themselves and on their material possessions. Later in Luke’s Gospel (12:13-21) Jesus will use the parable of the rich fool to give us the same message: This was the man who pulled down all his barns to build larger ones. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
Watch out, Jesus warns. Your seeming blessedness is actually a great danger. It won’t save you. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that material wealth is all you need. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you do not need the other. And don’t fall into the trap of believing that you do not need God. It will come back to haunt you, in this life and in the next.
Jesus wants everyone, rich and poor alike, Jew and Gentile, man and woman to return to a right relationship with God. The beatitudes, especially the teachings that follow this passage that focus on unconditional, sacrificial love are how God wants us to behave in the kingdom Jesus inaugurates. Put simply, loving God and our neighbor. According to today’s Collect, God is the strength of all who put their trust in him. With the help of God’s grace, and only with that help, not on our own, not with our own power, we can overcome our weakness and our brokenness, keep the commandments, especially the great commandment of love, and will please God both in will and deed. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.

[1] The Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2019, Volume 101, “Context, Craft, and Kerygma: Two Thousand Years of Great Sermons,” Clair W. McPherson, 12
[2] Ibid

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Fulfilling Scripture

A Sermon preached at the Family Service on Epiphany III, Jan. 27, at St. Augustine’s Wiesbaden

Luke 2:22-40, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Because we started today’s service with a Candlemas celebration, we are able to compare and contrast two very different appearances of Jesus in religious houses, one in the Temple and the other in his home synagogue! I am reminded of the Palm Sunday service. There too we start with a celebratory event, Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which is later followed by the story of his rejection, capture, and execution.

Today too we started with a celebration. Simeon, described as righteous and devout, takes the baby Jesus in his arms to praise and thank God for having sent him as our salvation, and as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." (Luke 2:32) And although her words are not recorded, the prophet Anna joins in praising God and “speaking about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (2:38)

But where there is light, there is often also shadow. Simeon warns Mary that there will be opposition to Jesus and what he stands for, “a sign that will be opposed,” and that she will suffer great sadness: “a sword will pierce your own soul too." (2:34-35) We do not have to wait very long when Jesus starts his active ministry before this prediction becomes true. It is right there in today’s second Gospel passage about Jesus’ visit to the synagogue at Nazareth.

When Jesus tells the congregation that, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," (4:21) everyone is still happy. They “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (4:22) Yet just a few lines later we are told, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (4:29-30) He escapes this early death, but it looks forward to another hill, Calvary, and to the death that Jesus will have to pass through.

So, what went wrong, why did they turn against him?  In the version of this episode in Mark’s Gospel (6:1-6), the people of Nazareth are against Jesus from the very beginning, because they doubt that the “carpenter,” as they call him, has either the wisdom he claims, or the power. Immediately, “they took offence at him.” ….. And he could do no deed of power there.”  That is not the case in Luke’s account.  “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” And it seems they are looking forward to Jesus  doing the things that they had heard he did at Capernaum.

It can’t be disappointment either. This is the very beginning of his ministry. Later people do turn from Jesus out of disappointment. Because he is not the Messiah they wanted. Not the military leader, not the one who will reward his followers with power and wealth. Or because it all takes too long and too much effort. The Kingdom of God does not come over night. The transformation of the world is a gradual process, through the transformation of the individual. We see this sort of impatience so often. Look at President Macron in France for example. He was elected with a huge majority to implement a program of reform, at the end of which, he promised, France would be much better off. Unfortunately, pain comes before gain. And not only are the “gilets jaunes” unwilling to wait, but also, according to polls, a majority of the French people are also now disappointed. It’s best not to expect miracles from humans.

No, the reason that the people in Nazareth turn against Jesus, is because they are motivated by the question, “what’s in it for us?”  They want him to do the things he has done elsewhere in Capernaum, healing the sick and the possessed, perhaps even what he did in Cana, providing them with free wine for a party, here in Nazareth, for them, and now. When he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” (4:21) the scripture promising liberation, recovery of sight for the blind, and the forgiveness of all debts, they think it means them first, and perhaps also greater Israel second. They deserve it, don’t they? He’s one of them, Joseph’s boy. They helped bring him up. And they are all good and faithful Jews who go to the synagogue every week, study God’s word every day, and pray morning, noon, and night.

But Jesus has other ideas, just as Simeon foretold in the Temple when he called Jesus the “savior prepared for all the world to see, a light to enlighten all nations.” (Luke 2:32) When Jesus reminds them that during a great famine Elijah was sent to a foreign widow in Zarephath, although there were many widows in Israel, and that Elisha cleansed a Syrian leper, and a general of their great enemy, he is telling them that God’s power cannot be restricted to their little community, or to their people. God’s power does not belong to us and God does not belong to us. We belong to God.

As we heard, this did not go down well, and so, metaphorically shaking the dust off his feet, he passed through the midst of them and went on his way, continuing on his mission to bring good news to all. The scripture was being fulfilled in their hearing, but not the way they thought. The people of Nazareth attending their synagogue that day wanted God to do their bidding. But it’s the other way round. God calls peoples and individuals to do God’s bidding.

Israel was chosen to be a light to the Gentiles, to witness to a God who cares and loves. And the people of Nazareth, and everyone who listened to Jesus, were also chosen, if they accepted, to be a light to others, and to use God’s power in service and love. As St. Paul tells us in that passage that is a firm favorite at weddings, “faith, hope, and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)  

The Christian Church, as the New Israel, has the same role: to be a light to all, to bring the Good News to all, to serve all. The God we witness to is not a God who lives only in Israel, in this or our home countries, in the Church, in our denomination, in our parish, or within whatever boundaries we try and set. God is not ours. Jesus is not ours. We are his. One of the seven practices of the Way of Love, the Rule of Life that our Presiding Bishop introduced at last year’s General Convention is called “GO: Cross boundaries.” “As Jesus went to the highways and byways, he sends us beyond our circles and comfort, to witness to the love, justice, and truth of God with our lips and with our lives. We go to listen with humility and to join God in healing a hurting world. We go to become Beloved Community, a people reconciled in love with God and one another.”[1] That is what Jesus is telling the people in Nazareth and us through this story. We are to go beyond the boundaries we set just as Elijah, and Elisha did. St. Paul also heard this message and took it to heart, crisscrossing the known world, willfully breaking rules if he felt that they stood in the way of the Gospel. 

If we want to be able to say, today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, we must not just hear scripture, but embody it, act upon it, in one sense become it. And we cannot keep it to ourselves, or only look after our own. Jesus, the word of God, is ours, but ours to share. The Good News is ours, to share. Using God’s greatest gift, the power of love, we can bring freedom from poverty, liberation, healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness not only to our own, but to all those who are God’s own. So, to every human being. That is what the dismissal at the end of the service means, whether you are sent forth in the name of Christ, or in peace, or in the power of the Spirit, it is always to love and to serve.



Thanks also to for inspiration and some of the interpretation