Minister's Sermon - Friday 15th February 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenFriday 15th February 2019

Luke 6.17-26

I wonder if you’re thinking what I thought when I read Sunday’s Gospel? That’d it would have been so much better to have had Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes! It’s beginning is far less pointed. It’s the poor in spirit who are blessed. And that might just include us. Whereas, in Luke’s version, those are us who are rich, who are not hungry, feel condemned by Jesus’ woes. So, what are we to do with it all?! Well, I want to say three short things, by way of reflection. Three things I hope might be a starting point for further reflection. They’re about Luke’s purpose, the context of the story, and the place Jesus speaks from.

We sang Mary’s song – the Magnificat – at the beginning of the service because the reversal in the reading’s blessings and the woes echoes Mary’s words. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This fits with the story Luke tells about Jesus’ beginnings, of despised shepherds, being the first to be told about him. With Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, when he tells his own townspeople, that instead of feeding and healing the widows and lepers of Israel, God sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath and Namaan the Syrian. And in Acts, Luke’s story of reversals continues, with the disciples being accused of turning the world upside down. In these and many other situations God doesn’t do what people expected of God. God takes the side of the poor, the outsider, excluded. Not just within Israel. But from outside Israel as well. So, it’s clear, that this reversal is important to Luke. But why, that is, isn’t as obvious. Some commentators conclude - and I think there is a lot to commend their view - that Luke’s Gospel was written for a community of Christians who were relatively well-off and satisfied, by the standards of their time. They wouldn’t be rich in ours, but rich enough, not to need to worry about hunger. The death of a family member didn’t mean becoming destitute. And they were not being persecuted for their faith. Not so unlike us? Both of the women whose lectionary essays I read, each week, comment on this. Debie Thomas asks, “What am I — cozy and comfortable as I am in my healthy, happy, First World, middle-class life — to do with this Gospel reading? How shall I reflect on it? Receive it? Sit with it?” (1) While Karoline Lewis, encourages preachers not to get caught up comparing this version of the beatitudes with Matthew’s, suggesting it’s a “convenient… diversion from our discomfort.” (2) The point, is that as long as there are people who are poor, captive, who lack freedom and are excluded, the Gospel will be uncomfortable for those who have enough, who are safe, full.

So, I come back to Thomas’ question, how shall I receive this reading? The first thing I want to say is, this isn’t an invitation to wallow in guilt, or romanticize poverty. The context in which Jesus says these uncomfortable things – as well as the rest of his ministry - show us that neither is appropriate. On this occasion, a “great multitude of people… 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...” It was a great, chaotic multitude, as people clamoured to touch him, so they could be healed. And they came from far and wide. From “Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Jesus doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t refuse anyone. “…power came out from him and healed all of them.” For “Jesus’s ministry,” “is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and joy.” For everyone.

But there’s more to the context than this, because the people Jesus was speaking to and those Luke was writing for, were also aware of a longer tradition of blessings and the woes. They’re included in some of the other readings set for this coming Sunday. In readings from the prophet Jeremiah and the Book of Psalms. Though they use the even more troubling language of happiness and curses as well as blessings and woes. Happy are those… And cursed are those… What’s meant by this isn’t always the same ‘though, for while some commentators suggest it’s God who blesses and curses, others seem to say that what we choose determines whether we’re blessed or cursed. In Hebrew, the word for “woe,” is a lament or a warning. A lament that something isn’t being done as God would expect. A warning that’s a call to repentance. To a change our behaviour. To turn around and face the other direction. What is clear, ‘though, is that it is not a judgement. Jesus isn’t saying that those who are blessed are good, and those who are cursed or who experience woes, are worse people than those who are blessed. This isn’t about being saved. Or about being condemned to hell. It’s not to do with who is loved and who is not loved. It’s rather to do with all our expectations being upended. With those who assumed they were blessed, discovering they’re not and those who thought they were not, discovering they are. Because in God’s kingdom everything is turned upside down. Everyone who assumes they know their place find their place changing. Reversals and up-endings are the order of the day.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that what Jesus says here “is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone.” (1) I love that. Yet this isn’t actually what we see or how the world works. According to a recent Oxfam report “just 26 people now own as much as half the planet’s population, and the collective wealth of the billionaire class swells by 2.5 billion dollars every day.” And this disparity is echoed in countries and communities all over the world. None of it is the result of natural causes. It arises out of the deliberate choices made by governments. Choices sanctioned by voters. Including me and you. The reversal Luke says will happen in God’s kingdom seems a very long way away. Yet, I think reports like this, reports and news items that echo Jesus’ challenging words, act as a lament, as a warning and as an invitation for those who of us who can hear. We’ll come to the lament and warning in our prayers. But before I finish I want to say a little more about the invitation because that’s contained in the place Jesus stands.

One of the things that’s different about Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of the Beatitudes, is that in Luke’s, instead of speaking from the mountain, Jesus is on a plain. A level place. And it’s the level place that makes these blessings and woes into an invitation. The phrase may remind you of these words from the prophet Isaiah.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.

This is God’s promise. The promise of reversal expressed in the landscape, the promise that Jesus was fulfilling as he healed people on the plain, before he spoke. For as he did this, people who had been excluded because they were ill or diseased, were now included in. They were made level, equal with those who had excluded them. This was challenging for some people. Especially the religious leaders in Jesus’ time. But we can assume to others too. And Karoline Lewis reminds us, that this isn’t unusual, because the way humans live suggests that “no one really wants to be on the same level. If that were the case, the rich would not be as rich as they are and the poor would not be as poor as they are. Having to stand on the same level as those whom you have deemed less-than as well as those you hold in high esteem… is almost too much… to bear, and, at the end of the day, not how the world works.” (2) We human beings tend to prefer mountaintops to level plains, because we want some people to be at the top, and some to be at the bottom. It gives us something to aim for. Someone to be more important than. Whether that has to do with power, or wealth, or influence. We feel more secure when we know our place. The level plain challenges all of this. It invites us to be the same as other people. To stand alongside those seeking help from Jesus. People who are excluded, people who are poor, people who are vulnerable, who need healing, who don’t fit in. The times I’ve best understood what that means, is when I’ve been waiting for a hospital appointment, or when I’ve been in hospital. A patient. Usually, a not very patient, patient! Then, I find myself wondering why someone else seems to have jumped the queue, and thinking it’s not fair. Discovering things about myself that I’m not very comfortable with. And that feels a little like Karoline Lewis’s description of what it must have been like for the people trying to touch Jesus. Because on the plain you can’t see where he is. You have to stand on tip toes to glimpse him. Things and people are in your way. Your vision is obscured. And, you haven’t a clue who is deserving or not deserving of help, who is good and who is bad, blessed or cursed, right or wrong. For the level plain turns us into the equal people that we are. All made in the image and likeness of God – each knitted together by God in our mother’s wombs – if we’re prepared to stay there, stand alongside each other, and take the risk of welcoming each other. And that, I think, is the invitation that this aspect of Jesus’ sermon on the plain offers.

So, what is it, that presents you with the insights of the level places in your life? It might be the news. It might be moments when you find yourself in a place you’d not expected to. It might be standing alongside people you’re familiar with. But whatever it is, when we’re faced with the reality that we are not more important, or more deserving, or even more worthy, than others of God’s people, then God can use the opportunity to work in us. To show us the people, God is including in the kingdom of God, now. And how God longs to include us in too. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen