Capacity Conundrum

February 17, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26

There’s a stream of thought that says every pastor really only has one sermon in them. [For the sake of job security I maybe shouldn’t be exploring this stream of thought since you might start wondering if it is too easy for me to pull together sermons since I apparently only have one…but whatever, here goes.] A preacher may preach on a variety of scripture texts, themes, or topics, but for the most part they are going to pass along the same message with each presentation. One could argue this is, hopefully, because the root message of preachers should be the message of God in the world and that in its most essential form boils down to a message of love. Each preacher may have a different lens through which they view that message of love – a different slant from which approach it; perhaps examples of good works, faith, justice, relationship, hope, etc., etc. yet in each of their sermons, at some point, they will come back around to whichever touchstone it is that is authentic for them in their message.

That’s part of what we have on display in today’s scripture passage from Luke. Within this text we encounter Jesus’ one sermon. You may recognize it (especially if you are prone to listen to scripture with anabaptist leaning ears) as part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount as recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7. Blessed are, blessed are, blessed are, blessed are…these are the beatitudes…but instead of the eight that Matthew shares, Luke only offers 4 and then goes on to do something different…he adds in some woes, which make this a particularly daunting text to really live with…and preach on.

Before we get bogged down by woes. Let’s take a look at something else that is very different about this rendition of Jesus preaching. Going back to the text, verses 17-20:

Coming down the mountain with them, Jesus stopped in a level area where there were a great number of disciples. A large crowd of people was with them from Jerusalem and all over Judea, to as far north as the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon – people who had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, and even to be freed from unclean spirits. Indeed, the whole crowd was trying to touch Jesus, because power was coming out of him and healing them all. Looking at the disciples, Jesus said:  

And he begins to preach. This is not a sermon preached on a mountain top to reinforce that it is a message from God designed to elevate the human spirit. Instead Jesus has brought the news of the kindom down to the level place where the people are gathered. This is the sermon on the plain. The sermon on level with the people in need of a refreshing, reviving, healing, and hopeful word.

Ronald J Allen, a professor emeritus of Christian Theological Seminary of Indianapolis, wrote a commentary I studied this week which reminded me about how the word level is sometimes used in scripture. He writes:

The word “level” often refers to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning (see Jeremiah 9:22; 14:18; 30:4; Daniel 3:1; Joel 1:10, 20; 2: 22; 3:19; Habakkuk 3:17; Zechariah 12:11). Jesus teaches the way of the Realm in the midst of the world as such a level place. []

Just the evening before this scene, Jesus had gone away from the people he had been preaching to and healing and headed up to the mountain to pray and spend time in communion with God. And yet, he doesn’t linger there, separate from the very real troubles, suffering, and woes of the people he is ministering to. Instead, he comes back down and continues to share the spirit of God and the hopeful news of God’s ever present kindom with those who have gathered to be near him.

And people, lots of people, have gathered together. The text says:

A large crowd of people was with them from Jerusalem and all over Judea, to as far north as the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon – people who had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, and even to be freed from unclean spirits.

These are people who have heard about the words and works of Jesus and have come to see for themselves – from as far north as Tyre and Sidon, which are in what we know as Lebanon – a potentially long journey from a region that would have been outside of typical Jewish territory in the time of Jesus. Simultaneously this sentence is reminding us of the magnitude of impact Jesus’ ministry was having and that Jesus’ message was outside the expected norms of his religious community.

And the content of his message was outside the norm! What does he tell this gathered crowd?

You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours.

Not the kindom will be yours, some day, in the future, at some point…no – the kindom, the reign of God is yours. Now…here in this place, God is with you and for you.

You who hunger now are blessed, for you’ll be filled.

Yes we are back to a bit of future forecasting in this language – because as much as the reign of God is at hand in all moments, we people, with our more power focused priorities, often get in the way of the full actualization of that kindom. There is still suffering, injustice, oppression, poverty and more that are all very real and Jesus knows that. Instead of undermining the experiences of the people, he offers them a word of promise: the hungry will be filled. And a word of hope:

You who weep now are blessed, for you’ll laugh.

This is an unexpected message.

This morning the youth and I had the opportunity to teach the preschool through first grade Sunday school class. The curriculum we are currently using for our Sunday school classes up through 5th grade (and bits and pieces in the older classes) is called Shine. It is produced by MennoMedia. The basic introductory paragraph about the Shine curriculum on its website states this:

The good news we share with our children has the power to transform lives and revitalize communities. So, let’s prepare the ground for a new tomorrow, send down roots anchored in love. Let’s sow in them seeds of mercy and plant them by the river of life. []

One of the aspects I really appreciate about this curriculum is that it draws on a variety of educational theories including Godly Play, which is based on Montessori methods of teaching, and encourages children to seek and find answers to their questions of faith through wonder, art, and engagement with the Bible story. []

In Sunday school, this looks like the kids not only hearing Bible stories being told to them, they also either see it acted out with figurines, or embody it themselves with time and space to wonder about things in the story without necessarily seeking or offering an answer – instead, space is created for reflection, imagination, wonder.

It is a lovely way to interact with scripture. It has the potential to let us encounter the text in new ways, to experience it and relate to it in unexpected ways; to breathe new life into a story that we thought we had already heard everything we could from.

I think it is particularly helpful with this Luke passage, to open oneself up to some space for wondering…

I wonder what it was like to have heard such accounts of Jesus that I would be moved to travel so far to hear Jesus preach…

I wonder what it was like to be in such a large crowd of people clamoring for Jesus’ attention and energy…

I wonder what is was like to be in the presence of the power the text states was coming out of him…

I wonder was it was like to be poor, hungry, and suffering and to hear these words of blessing for the first time…

To open ourselves up to a sense of wonder and imagination can let us embrace the full impact of this moment for those gathered on that plain with Jesus. As Rev. Kathryn Matthews imagines:

“It must have been a moment fraught with possibility and hope, even for those who have felt hopeless and abandoned.” []

Jesus is preaching the revolutionary nature of God’s kindom. A kindom rooted in love and justice so that all life might thrive. There are very real social justice implications in this message. Relief for the poor, food for the hungry, freedom for the oppressed – and the call to work for those things now as we continue to live out and usher in the reign of God in all times.

And the upside down nature of God’s reign means that those who join in that work may encounter new hardships because of living into that vision. This is acknowledged by the fourth blessing:

You are blessed when people hate you, when they scorn and insult you and spurn your name as evil because of the Chosen one. On the day they do so, rejoice and be glad; your reward will be great in heaven for their ancestors treated the prophets the same way.

These blessings are indeed a call to action for social justice that breathes life into God’s justice, for all people, in real ways in the presence of the messiness of the world. They are also a message of spiritual resiliency. If you are poor in spirit: God’s reign is at hand, join in!  If you are spiritually hungry: what is it you are hungry for? Justice? Love? Peace? Seeking nourishment from God will open paths to nourishment. If you are weeping and hopeless: fear not, you will laugh. If you commit to kindom living, there will still be challenges. Through it all you will be tethered to the life giving love of God. This is an echo of the prophet Jeremiah which we also heard today:

Blessed are those who put their trust in God, with God for their hope. They are like a tree planted by the river that thrusts its roots toward the stream. When the heat comes it feels no heat; its leaves stay green. It is untroubled in a year of drought, and never ceases to bear fruit.

It’s almost like Jesus’s one sermon is the introductory paragraph to the shine curriculum I was telling you about – only marginally modified:

The good news [Jesus] shares with [God’s] children has the power to transform lives and revitalize communities. So, let’s prepare the ground for a new tomorrow, send down roots anchored in love. Let’s sow in [all people] seeds of mercy and plant them by the river of life.

As much as I would like to end there with that word of encouragement, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least wonder a bit about the last few verses of this scripture passage today. During this last week at our house, Becky has been fighting the flu and so there were many cups of tea consumed. One of the tea bags came with a Persian proverb printed on its tag that said: [those] who [want] a rose must respect the thorn. While I am sure we could spend much time and energy debating the merits and authenticity of such a proverb – I will instead forge ahead and respect the more thorny bits of this passage.

Enter the woes.

Woe to the rich, the full, the laughers, and the well respected.

If we’re honest, there’s a bit of each of those categories in all of us.

I wonder about these woes…

I wonder what feelings of discomfort they bring to the surface for me…

I wonder how I might hold them with gentleness and give them space to shine light on areas of possible transformation in my life…

And then I wonder, what if these are not actually woes of condemnation, but are instead woes of description. Perhaps, like so much of scripture, they are not so much threats, as they are a corresponding outcome to a chosen path. One translation of this passage [Weymouth New Testament] I read this week didn’t call these woes, instead they were alases.

Alas for you rich [people], because you already have your consolation! Alas for you who now have plenty to eat, because you will be hungry! Alas for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep aloud! Alas for you when [people] shall all have spoken well of you; for that is just the way their forefathers behaved to the false Prophets!

It is when I hear them like this, that I can begin to embrace these woes in new ways. I can begin to understand that these words are pointing us to consider where we place our priorities. If we are satisfied by wealth, satiated by food, pleased with our successes, and well regarded, we are likely thriving by the standards of the culture around us. Yet, in the fullness of that success, we are also likely missing out on much of the life giving nature of the kindom of God.

The Jeremiah text also reflects this message:

Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from God.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

These woes, or alases, offer a choice to those who are seeking to be followers of Jesus. Set right next to the blessings that come with poverty, hunger, sorrow, and shame, they hold up a mirror that asks Jesus followers, or any willing person, to confront and be mindful about our perspective and priorities. The reign of God that Jesus preaches sets forth different standards and terms than human institutions and cultures would have us choose to pursue. There’s no shortage of examples of the implications of the painful priorities of human institutions available to us every day. To live kindom life now is to choose a perspective that honors the experiences of suffering, poverty, injustice, and oppression and moves us to actions of solidarity and hope at the possible cost of cultural alignment and success.

We, like the crowd gathered around Jesus, are living in a level place surrounded by suffering, disgrace, idolatry, misery, hunger, and mourning. We too are in need of the message of presence, strength, hope and courage that Jesus preaches. Kindom life is guided by love, justice, and healing. May these be our guides as we wonder about and embrace life in the ever present reign of God…as it is here, now, and becoming.