Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

Year C, RCL

February 17, 2019

North Fork Ministries

Luke 6:17-26

Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They 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, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
for you will be filled. 

“Blessed are you who weep now, 
for you will laugh. 

“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." 

"But 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. 

"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."


This morning’s gospel reading probably sounds familiar to you, but something about it may seem a little off.  In Matthew, the passage is known as “the Beatitudes” and is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  But the passage we heard today is Luke’s account of a sermon that Jesus preached, not from a mountaintop, but on the flat, arid plains.  Now, I can’t say whether Jesus preached two versions of the same sermon in different locations, or whether the recorders of Matthew’s gospel and the writers of the gospel according to Luke, simply received the message in different ways.  I can imagine that from a less lofty perch, from a position closer to the people, Jesus might have preached a message that spoke more directly to their hearts and, in a less abstract way, addressed the concrete conditions and concerns of flesh and blood human beings. 


In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. While the sermon given on the plain simply says, “Blessed are the poor”.  Matthew talks about the blessedness of those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness”.  But Luke proclaims the blessedness of those who simply hunger.  And Matthew says that those who mourn will be comforted, while Luke tells us that those who weep, will not just be comforted, but laugh again. In shifting the geography from the mountains to the plains, we get a more “down to earth” kind of gospel. 


But the biggest contrast between the two sermons is evident in the presence, in Luke alone, of what are sometimes called “The Woes.”

"But 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.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets”


Luke puts the bad news, right up there beside the good.


Luke’s Jesus often tells a different story than Matthew’s Jesus.  It is clear throughout the Gospel of Luke that the poor, the hungry, the marginalized have a special claim, through Jesus, on God’s blessing. If we want to know Jesus, Luke tells us to go where Jesus is - among the poor, the hungry and the oppressed.


Matthew’s version is a little easier for us to relate to.  For who among us hasn’t felt poor in spirit, and hungered after righteousness; while not many of us here have known the hardness of true poverty and most of us haven’t missed too many meals.  And we squirm at the vindictive nature of “the woes.” As much as we might envy the wealthy, not many of us really desire that the well fed, the happy, and the rich should hunger, mourn, and weep.


And neither do I.  As you may have heard me say about my profession, “I’m in the blessing business, not the cursing business.”


So what are we to do with Jesus’ harsh words?


Indeed, these days I find myself, usually full, often laughing, and to my amazement, people sometimes even speak well of me.  And recognizing that I am among the fat and happy, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is speaking to me when he says, “Woe unto you, for you will be hungry, you will mourn, and you will weep.”


Last week, Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, responded to my request that she play some dinner music by playing Janis Joplin’s version of, “Me and Bobby Magee. My favorite line is Janis wailing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”


Looking back, on the vantage point of 67 years on this earth, I’m pretty sure that the single happiest moment in my life occurred when I was 22 years old. I had hitched a ride on Interstate Highway 10 between San Antonio and El Paso and I was heading to the interior of Mexico, where I planned on spending an indeterminate amount of time.  The driver, perhaps a little wary of my intentions, had deposited me in the bed of his aging Chevrolet El Camino. I sprawled my lanky body amid the clutter I found there, and settled into the restorative warmth of the Texas winter sun. As we lurched forward, the wind generated by the speed of our travel down the highway tossed my hair madly around me.  I rested my head on a well-worn backpack containing virtually everything I owned, looked up at God’s blue sky, and was supremely happy.


Life, as it does, became more complicated after those few months.  Filling my belly, and then filling my pockets with the riches the world has to offer began to tempt me.  A desire to possess, cling, to my first love, eventually brought me more tears than laughter. Whether friends and family, and the world at large, would speak well of me, slowly began to seem important.  And in hot pursuit of what the world deemed worthy, I lost sight of my freedom. 


Yet, years later when the promise of success proved hollow, and all that I had gained was lost, I found that a hunger for God rushed in to fill the newly created void.  I think that is why Luke so fervently expresses his pity on those who are rich and full and laughing and praised.  Woe unto those who have no more room in their hearts to experience the love of God.  Luke isn’t just expressing contempt for those who have wealth, but instead compassion and sadness at their inability to know God and find true happiness.


The sermon Jesus offered on the plains assured the poor and the hungry and the weeping that they would inherit the kingdom, be filled, and laugh again. Like many of you, over the course of my life, I have experienced a great deal of personal loss. And with each loss came a flood of pain and confusion and emptiness. Three years ago, miraculously, God picked me up and planted me along the Camino de Santiago de Compestela in Spain and told me to walk. 


You know God is a bit of a comedian. And I think God wondered when I would finally get the not so subtle joke he told in reminding me of the supreme happiness I once knew when I was 22 and hitching a ride in a Chevy El Camino. Forty-three years later I found myself on a Camino of a different sort, walking a spiritual path, with everything I needed contained within a small pack on my back.  And I laughed again – at God’s joke and my foolishness in attachment to anything that is not of the Spirit.  


We don’t need all the stuff we have.  In fact, I think it weighs us down and prevents us from knowing the lightness of being, the joy that God wants for us. 


In holding up the blessedness of the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the maligned, Jesus is also pointing to a path of redemption for those of us with too much.  The path to salvation and joy is simple.  Give away what you have been given.  Don’t be attached to the blessings you have received. Be generous with all you have and all you are.  That’s not as easy as it sounds.  I heard the writer Ann Lamott say recently that, “Everything I have ever let go of has claw marks all over it.”  But it is only through the emptying of yourself that you can create room for God’s true blessings.


May God bless us with emptiness – and an irresistible yearning for that void to be filled by the Spirit.