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Holy Communion every week, open to all believers

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Sermon:Luke 3:15-17 Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Rev. Jerry Reynolds

Luke 6: 17-26

Sixth week of Epiphany ,February 17th, 2019, First Lutheran Manhattan


There’s an old story of a Lutheran pastor who gave a very poor man in his congregation a new suit. Soon after, the poor man stopped coming to church.  The pastor was greatly concerned and went to visit him.  The pastor asked the poor man if he was ok, and why he quit coming to church? The Poor man told the Lutheran pastor, “After I got the new suit, I felt so prosperous, that I go to the Episcopal Church now.”  I suspect that this story is more fun than fact.  But the point of the story is true for all of us: we are all blessed and we all see our blessings differently—but what does it mean to be blessed?

Usually it is some degree of prosperity or good health. Your thoughts might include something as weighty as deliverance from harm, or something as commonplace as victory in a sports game. When circumstances seem to go the way we want, it is not uncommon for us to consider them a blessing.  But what about the woes? I can remember being asked to memorize the beatitudes but no one ever asked me to memorize the woes. We don’t have to look hard to find woes. Cursing language is quite common in everyday speech. Even our children cry out: “Drop dead!” or “I hate you” and much worse. We may not believe that we have been cursed when misfortune befalls us, but we can cry woe and think that we have somehow been handed a “raw deal,” and that someone other than ourselves is responsible. 

People in traditional societies, like those that produced the Bible, believed that certain speech itself had extraordinary power. They were convinced that when one pronounced a blessing or curse, the words themselves began the process of bringing about the objective. Therefore, they did not throw out words of blessing or curse randomly, as we might today. They further realized that if human words could accomplish such feats, one could only imagine what God’s words might do. Perhaps that’s why pastors, priests and other clergy spend so much of their days bestowing blessings, anointing with oil, and praying for others in God’s name.  We all desire God’s blessings, not earthly woes.

Both the reading from Jeremiah and the Gospel speak of blessings and curses, or woes. Though the terms are not used in exactly the same way in both readings, they do give us an insight into the kind of behavior that was to be preferred, and they sketch some of the consequences of that behavior in human life. Both Jeremiah and today’s psalm contrast the life circumstances of those who trust in God or cherish God’s law with those who do not.  Jeremiah says namely to trust in God and respect God’s law. But in the Gospel, Jesus seems to turn reality upside down. Those whom Jesus calls blessed seem cursed; and those threatened with woes are enjoying blessings. So why the paradox? Does God really prefer the poor and needy and reject those with financial security?

No, what makes one blessed is not simply poverty or hunger or sadness, but commitment to the Son of Man; and like the false prophets of old, the ones condemned are those who compromised their values in order to be accepted and succeed. Jesus’ message is actually very similar to Jeremiah’s and the psalmist’s: trust God and cherish God’s law. In other words, if you choose God, you will be blessed. On the other hand, if you choose human standards, you will succumb to the woe.

We today have a very narrow understanding of law, especially the law of God. We think of it as rigid and confining. We may even consider it out of date and irrelevant. Ancient Israel believed that law set a path or direction to happiness and fulfillment. They saw it as the psalmist tells us as “refreshing the soul...rejoicing the heart.” Cherishing God’s law was not a burden—it was a joy, a celebration.  Micah 6:8 is often called the "Hebrew Beatitudes.”  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

Still, trusting in God is easier said than done, because we are all so influenced by the standards of today. We are bombarded by advertisements that assure us we have a right to a high-paying job, even without working for it; the excessively wealthy are held up as icons to be emulated; it's easier to develop an "I deserve this" attitude rather than lean on God.  And the needy are disdained as unworthy of our attention. At every turn we are offered food—“all you can eat”—and the only valid reason for depriving oneself is to lose weight in order to achieve the super thin body of a runway model. The weeping of which Jesus speaks is probably the frustration that people on the margins of society experience when they are denied the opportunities that every society owes all its citizens—and the weeping is real.

These Beatitudes challenge our understanding of blessedness, but they also are sometimes difficult to interpret. The beatitudes are a glimpse into the heart and mind of God. Now, what we do with this is up to us. We are being offered a new vision of our world and our lives. The point is not that we must obey a rule that says 'thou shalt be poor and persecuted'. The point is that, by this blessing, we can look at the mind of God and discover all sorts of new possibilities.

So in this season of Epiphany we have some new light on God. And a question: If God is really like this; if God has the preferences and the priorities of the beatitudes, then what could that mean? How could our lives be different, how could you be different? That's the issue, and that is the question Jesus leaves us with. It's a good question, and worth considering in your life.  How are you blessed?

Jesus is saying that the values and customs of the reign of God at times seriously conflict with those of society. Today’s readings urge us to step back from the hustle and bustle of life and evaluate our values from Jesus’ point of view.  Or as Micah reminds us, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" AMEN.

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