Minister's Sermon - 3rd November 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenBible study for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 3rd November 10.30am

Gospel: Luke 6.17-31

Bible Study

Introduction

I’ll begin with a confession. I have never done a bible study or preached on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. And I haven’t, because Luke’s is far more challenging than Matthew’s, which allows us to spiritualise Jesus’ words. We spiritualise the beatitudes and get away with it, because we can’t be sure whether Jesus spoke to his disciples on the plain as Luke says he does, or whether Matthew’s story of him speaking to them on a mountain is more accurate. But rather that choosing between them, we need to recognise that they are different, and focus on the version that the lectionary sets. This year it’s Luke’s. Next year it’ll be Matthew. In addition, I think it helps us to recognise that Luke and Matthew wrote their story of Jesus’ life and teaching, for particular communities in different times and places. And that has shaped the way they’re written. It’s generally agreed that Luke was writing to a community with two characteristics that matter here. The first – which relates to the first three blessings and woes - was that it included people who lived comfortably and were probably relatively well-off. The second – which related to the fourth blessing and woe - is that some of their number were formerly members of the Jewish community and had left Judaism because of their beliefs about Jesus. Why these matters will become clear as we proceed. But before we look at the beatitudes and woes, I want to make some comments about the context of the passage, and about how we are to read the blessings and woes.

Jesus has spent the night up a mountain., praying. When day came, he called his disciples up to him, choose twelve of them and called them apostles. Then he came down with them and stood on a level place – a plain - where a crowd of disciples and a great multitude of people were gathered. They’d come from all over Judea, Jerusalem and the coastlands, to hear him teach and to be healed. And they were all there as he spoke, even ‘though he looked at the disciples (not just the apostles), as he did. This means that the blessings and woes and the instructions that follow, are for those who are committed to following Jesus, not for the general public. They’re the qualities expected of Christians. We might even call them the quality standards! They’re what saints are like.

Before we look at each of the blessings and woes, I want to say something about the words, because they’re not necessarily easy ones. “Blessed” is a very churchy word with little meaning for most people. ‘Though it’s sometimes used in a patronising way. My sister often says “Bless,” when someone has done something that might be amusing, if it wasn’t so sad. “Happy” is another common translation, but it’s generally used in a small, or a light way. Matt Skinner, a professor of new Testament, prefers “unburdened” or “satisfied.” But what about “Woe!” It’s used here as a contrast to “blessed,” but does not mean “cursed,” “unhappy” or “damned,” as it’s sometimes translated. Matt Skinner, suggests “yikes,” or “look out” might be better. It’s “more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a… pronouncement.” (1) But that shouldn’t make us complacent. The sharp distinctions and reversals in this passage need to be taken seriously. And yet they shouldn’t only be seen as promises of rewards and punishments coming in the future. If the reign of God “is among you” as Jesus says later in the Gospel, then the blessings and woes are also something that people can experience in the present, now. There is, of course, a divide between the blessed and the woeful in today’s world. But Sarah Henrich, another professor of New Testament says it is not the kind of “divide that our world creates between winners and losers, successful and unsuccessful, elites and non-elites. The blessed are those who have caught at least a glimpse of God’s future and trust that it is for them. The blessed may be poor or needy, even weeping… but they are blessed in both trust in God and in God’s future, in their hope of justice. The woeful are those who have forgotten that the ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’” (2) I want to move on now, to look at the first three blessings and woes, before a short break for a conversation.

Blessed are the poor… woe to you who are rich…

The easiest of the first three beatitudes are the 2nd and 3rd. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” They’re simple reversals that we understand, and even if we can’t see how they’ll come about give the volume of the world’s hunger and sorrow, we hold on to them. God promises that the hungry will be filled, and that those are weeping now, will be joyful in God’s kingdom. But the first beatitude different. And it sets the tone for all that follows. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” In other words, the kingdom of God, belongs to those who are poor, who are hungry and weeping, now. This is the second reference to the kingdom of God in Luke’s Gospel. The first came in chapter 4 when Jesus said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also,” extending what he said about good news to the poor in Nazareth to the rest of the country. Alan Culpepper, an expert on Luke’s Gospel, points out that “these earlier references to the poor, to the kingdom of God, and to good news prepare the reader to understand that the first beatitude is tied to Jesus’ fulfilment of Isaiah 61.” (3) This was the passage Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth and is often called his manifesto. Now, he invites the disciples he’s just called, to share in the work he’s begun. To enable those who suffer from poverty – which also includes those who are powerless and disenfranchised – to re-join the community of God’s people. To feed those who are hungry, and help people share what they have, by receiving their hospitality. To engender hope in those who live in perpetual loss and grief. It’s important that we understand that blessing those who are poor, isn’t about idealising or glorifying poverty, it’s a declaration of God’s preference - God’s bias - to the poor. Jesus’ ministry turns everything upside-down because things work differently in the kingdom of God.

This isn’t an ideological or a political agenda. It’s a theological one. It’s a vision of God’s reign embodied in Jesus. But it isn’t a popular message. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. Because it’s challenging for those of us who are not poor. Alan Culpepper says that “Jesus’ teachings are scandalous because they overturn every conventional expectation… So scandalous… that revisionist interpretations began as early as Matthew’s change of ‘poor’ to ‘poor in spirit’ and … those who ‘hunger’ to those who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness. Spiritualizing the beatitudes,” he says, “grants those who are not poor access to them, but it also domesticates Jesus’ scandalous Gospel.” (3) So, it’s hardly surprising that Matthew’s beatitudes are preferred, especially since they contain no hints of a “woe.” “…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.” There’s nothing new in these, they’re simply reversals of the positive blessings, announcing God’s judgement. Judgement that should be a cause for remorse and repentance among those of us who are rich. Luke is the Gospel writer, who says more than any of the others, about the danger of riches. Right from the beginning, in Mary’s song, we hear that God will end the rich away empty. In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus suggests that the rich have been lulled into a sense of false security when they think that what they have now, will ensure them future comfort. So, those who have treasures on earth, are not “rich towards God.” The parable of the great dinner is a reminder that that those who are rich tend to be so preoccupied with their possessions that they don’t respond to God’s invitation. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a reminder of what will happen to those who neglect the poor at their gates. And Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man ended with him saying. “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” But it is not impossible. For like Zacchaeus, the tax collector, repentance is possible. ‘Though repentance demands more than giving generously, it means making just reparation for unjust profits and “divesting” ourselves of riches we don’t need, because we recognise that they get in the way of us genuinely depending on God. (3)

Jesus’ message is tough. So, Matt Skinner asks why “Jesus’ good news for the … [poor means] other people need to watch out, or… be pitied. Don’t they already enjoy the satisfaction and the blessedness that Jesus promises others? Why doesn’t Jesus just say that everyone will receive plenty and security?” IT’s a good question! But it isn’t a simple matter of everyone getting richer (and anyway the planet cannot sustain it). The point is that the woe statements reflect a situation that is damaging for us all. Rich and poor. Let me explain. Foodbanks, are now so prevalent, that they’ve made it into a children’s story. “No-Money Day” was published this week. Apparently, it’s a book with beautiful illustrations and a moving story, but why is it even being told in this rich country of ours? (4) The death of 39 Vietnamese people in a refrigerated container lorry has horrified many of us. But it should also challenge us. because it reveals the stark differences between the riches of our nation, and the poverty of others, who send family members to ours in the hope that theirs might benefit from the crumbs that fall from our tables. There are many more stories of the world’s divisions. But I won’t tell you more, because my point isn’t, that people are poor. We know that. My point is that this situation damages us all. And we know that as well. So, why does it all continues? Sarah Heinrich say that “fear of how the needy will deprive us of that for which we have worked so hard builds psychological walls between us and them.” (2) But trying to protect ourselves and keep what is “ours” will fail. Because the things we assume are God’s blessings are actually illusions. Money, food, comfort, self-won security, respectability, have the potential to kill our souls. Not just in some far-off afterlife. But right here and right now. So, as Jesus speaks to his disciples on this level place, he tells them that following him will mean reassessing their lives in the light of God’s kingdom which favours the poor.

Think about, or talk with your neighbours, about one of these questions.

• How do you feel about God’s bias to the poor?

• How is your soul being killed by your possessions?

• Who are the saints who have impressed you by embodying God’s bias to the poor in their lives?

Blessed are you when people hate you…Woe to you when people speak well of you…

For the second half of this bible study, I want to look at the fourth blessing and woe, before ending at the end of today’s reading. It’s not the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, but it is a crucial part of it, that sheds further light on the blessings and woes. The fourth blessing and the fourth woe are different from the others and arise out of the context of the community Luke was writing for. “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… Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” There are parallels to this in the epistles. In the First letter of Peter it appears like this. “Blessed are you when you are hated for your reward is great in heaven.” The consequence of Christians leaving and being thrown out of the synagogues, was that they no longer belonged to a religion that was accepted by the Roman Empire, so should have worshipped the Roman gods. But they refused to do this. They saw their situation, as a parallel to the experience of Israel’s prophets, who were rejected for challenging the people of Israel about their behaviour and beliefs. And they saw those who sidestepped the truth and avoided persecution by remaining part of the synagogue, in the same vein as the false prophets of old who led God’s people into exile.

The fourth beatitude implies “that those who live by God’s blessing will find themselves so estranged from the world that others will persecute them.” Because, Alan Culpepper says, the world “has little tolerance for saints who set their sights on principles and values the world does not share.” (4) I think this is as true today as it ever has been. Yesterday, the government announced the suspension of shale gas extraction or fracking, in England. It’s been hailed as a major victory for local campaigners who have been living with the earthquakes and tremours it causes. But it’s also a win for environmentalists who say we shouldn’t be investing in new fossil fuels. For the past five and a half years, the campaigners have been jailed, and ridiculed by Cuadrilla - the company licensed to carry out the process – as well as by government ministers. The announcement came as part of a government review of the UK’s transition to a carbon neutral economy by 2050. This may be soon enough for some, but we also need to listen to those who say we’re not moving fast enough to prevent the Arctic ice melting, low-lying land being flooded, the deserts expanding, world’s populations of insects, animals and sea-creatures being decimated and our climate being changed. Greta Thunberg is seen by some as a modern-day prophet. In early October, Chika Unigwe wrote about her as a superstar. “In just one year, she has gone from being an unknown teenager, living in the comfort of a middle-class home in Sweden, to being one of the most recognised faces on the planet. She is fearless, earnest passionate about the planet and determined.” (5) Her speeches make us feel uncomfortable. So, it probably shouldn’t surprise us, that she’s been trolled on social media. On 23rd September, someone called Kellie tweeted, “What an actress! I won’t be held hostage by someone who just got a learner’s permit.” Her tweet was then retweeted by the American president on 3rd October, with the additional words, “Keep up the great work Kellie!” Thunberg’s response to Kellie’s tweet was this. “I honestly don’t understand why adults would choose to spend their time mocking and threatening teenagers and children for promoting science, when they could do something good instead. I guess they must simply feel so threatened by us.” I agree with her. Those of us who enjoy our lifestyles, are threatened, and not only by her. Extinction Rebellion’s protests were acceptable in the beginning, but their recent protests at train stations and airports, have been less popular. With some suggesting that they’ll lose public support if they continue. In other words, when their protests begin to touch areas of our life where change is more challenging, we become less receptive. And we begin to feel threatened, we blame the protestors, and our tolerance for their values declines.

Solidarity and Saints

I’ll come back to the blessings and woes after we’ve reflected on the passage that follows them. This is still part of the Sermon on the Plain, and it continues beyond, but its ending is important for everything that comes before it and follows on. Let me remind you what it says. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Matt Skinner says that, “Many hear Jesus’ words about unlimited generosity and become worried - with good reason - about whether these teachings encourage victimization.” (1) And it’s not difficult to see how these verses might lead some to overlook abuse and economic exploitation when they’re taken out of context. But, “Jesus is doing theology here, not ethics rooted in abstract notions of obligation or decency.” (1) He isn’t suggesting that anyone should be deprived of their dignity. He’s showing us, that God’s mercy is so extravagant, that it looks foolish when compared with our conventional offerings. And central to this is loving our enemies, which is another way of saying, loving those we fear. Which we’ll only be able to do if our lives embody God’s generosity. The generosity that gives us what we have grasped. That divests ourselves of things we really don’t need. That let’s go of seeking profits that damage the earth and other people. So that the resources of God’s world can be available to those who are poor as well as those who are richest now. This is the sort of generosity that those who share God’s commitment to raising up those are poor, hungry, weeping and persecuted, have. And they are saints. Those who have shared God’s generosity, and have been persecuted or taunted because of it, in this time and in every generation that has past.

Together with the saints of our time, and us, these make up the communion of saints. A community of people, who share with Christ and one another, and live by the values of the beatitudes. The community described in Jesus’ sermon on the plain is odd. The people who are blessed in this community, don’t match our usual life experience, or the wisdom of the world expressed by the world’s governments and businesses. “Jesus calls the church to more than acting differently or seeing the world differently.H e calls us, each of us, [to a life] … in which God’s generosity benefits those” who are without now. (1) For when the lives of the saints are rooted in this sort of generosity, the community and world that’s created, is formed and sustained by the mercy of God. If this all sounds too abstract, think back to our earlier reading, and what happened when a child shared five loaves and two small fish. We all need this sort of generosity as we prepare for the forthcoming election. Willie James Jennings, says elections are all about imagination, and about claiming the “power of life” (6) when we feel threatened and afraid. For Christians, he says, elections are opportunities to re-imagine the world as the Kingdom of God. Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about elections, but he was talking about how to live in a time of change and it drew some people to him and terrified others. ‘Though those who were terrified, were “missing opportunities to experience…the giving and receiving of that mercy.” For those who fear, do not, “Do to others as we would have them do to us.” Which is what it means to live in solidarity with each other. Jesus is clear. Rich, full, respectable people can share immediately in this new community, the Kingdom of God, “but only to the degree to which [we’re willing to] enter into true solidarity with those who find themselves destitute, underfed, mournful, and persecuted.” And for those of us who refuse to risk that that solidarity…” [Well] what blessedness we are missing.” (1)

Think about, or talk with your neighbours, about one of these questions.

• How do you feel about God’s generosity?

• How far does your “doing to others as you would have them do to you” go?

• Who are the saints who have impressed you by their willingness to challenge the values of the world?

Sue Keegan von Allmen

3rd November 2019

(1) Matt Skinner, 3/11/2019 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256

(2) Sarah Heinrich, 6/11/2016 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3088

(3) Alan Culpepper The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX, 1995 pp 143-145

(4) Aditya Chakrabortty The Guardian Journal Thursday 31st October p1

(5) Chika Uniweg The Guardian Journal Saturday 5th October https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/05/greta-thunberg-developing-world-activists

(6) Willie James Jennings, “Aiming the World Toward Hope,” in Reflections Fall 2016, 11-12.

References

(1) Matt Skinner, 3/11/2019 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256

(2) Sarah Heinrich, 6/11/2016 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3088

(3) Alan Culpepper The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX, 1995 pp 143-145

(4) Aditya Chakrabortty The Guardian Journal Thursday 31st October p1

(5) Chika Uniweg The Guardian Journal Saturday 5th October https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/05/greta-thunberg-developing-world-activists

(6) Willie James Jennings, “Aiming the World Toward Hope,” in Reflections Fall 2016, 11-12.