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“Blessed Are You…”

(a sermon for November 3, 2019, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 6:17-26)

Amongst the very first textbooks I purchased as a seminary student, and one that still holds a space on my crowded bookshelf, is a copy of “Gospel Parallels.”  Edited by no less than our own esteemed New Testament professor, the late Burton Throckmorton, this volume served a unique purpose in that it presented the three “synoptic gospels” – that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke – in such a way that you’re able to read all the identical or similar passages side by side.  In other words, if you’re interested in comparing how each of those Gospels, for instance, records the events of the crucifixion it’s all right there on one page, complete with all the footnotes and textual cross-references.  So it’s an essential tool for Biblical study and exegesis; but perhaps even more than this for me it’s served not only as a reminder that Holy Scripture tells a story but also that it’s also a collection of stories, each one told in its own unique way.

And such is the case with the four gospels and the story of Jesus: by most historical accounts Mark, with its precise language and great brevity, came first, followed by Matthew and then Luke which drew from Mark’s account and then expanded upon it, including, for instance, the story of Jesus’ birth and, in the case of Luke, even writing a second volume, recording the “Acts of the Apostles.”  And then, finally, there’s John’s Gospel, which is sometimes referred to as the “Spiritual Gospel,” in that it looks at Jesus’ story through a more deeply theological lens, so to understand the “why” of our Lord’s coming.  And it’s all the same story, by and large – at times even word for word the same – all about Jesus’ miracles and healings, his parables and teachings, and of course his death and resurrection.  But for me having four different accounts is a lot like how family stories get told around the table, with one sibling having his or her own version of the story in question and the other offering up another version; one with a different emphasis and maybe with bits and pieces that were previously left out!  It’s not that the story wasn’t true, or that it was changed or exaggerated somehow; rather it’s a story that’s gotten richer as it gets told from a different point of view.  The same story, you see, but a different telling; and in the end, you end up with a much better understanding of what actually happened and even more so of what it all means!

Take for instance our text for this morning, Luke’s version of what is commonly referred to as “the Beatitudes.”  It’s generally thought of as being part of what’s called “the Sermon on the Mount,” and that’s how these verses are presented in Matthew, as part of many teachings included in that “sermon,” and specifically pointing out that Jesus “went up the mountain,” (5:1) that his disciples came to him up there, and this is where Jesus stood to speak to the crowds gathered below on the hillside. I dare say that for most of us this is probably the image that comes to mind when we picture Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (5:3-4) Truly, it’s the stuff of many a Sunday School paper and a whole lot of Biblical-themed movies, a beloved scenario one would not easily seek to change!

But here’s the thing; Luke, in his version of the Beatitudes that we’ve shared today, does tell the story differently.  Not only does Luke claim that Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place,” not standing above the people but right down there where this “great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” from all over were gathered – to the point of where Luke is specific about Jesus “look[ing] up at his disciples” as he’s about speak, suggesting he might actually have been sitting as he began to speak – not only that, but Luke emphasizes that the whole reason that Jesus had actually come down to this level place was because so many “had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases” and that “power came out from [Jesus] and [that he] healed all of them.”  And really, that’s a significant difference in storytelling, because now, rather than this image of an incredible oration offered up to an attentive multitude from a lofty hillside cathedral what we get in Luke is… this literal throng of people all pushing and shoving to get close to Jesus, all of them in the fervent and even desperate hope that they might be cured of their troubles and unclean spirits. To put it bluntly, it’s an over-crowded, chaotic mess of a scene, but it’s in the midst of all this noise and confusion some incredible words of hope are being offered.

And therein lies the other big difference in Luke’s version of this story: because what happens on this “level place” is that Jesus does, in fact, heal them all; but then, as we’ve said, he looks up at his disciples (which in and of itself suggests that Jesus is surrounded by all these people!) and says, “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.” (Capitalization mine!)  Understand the difference here: in Matthew, it’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (5:3-6) For starters, there’s a slightly different selection of “blessings,” and that’s worth noting (Matthew records eight, as opposed to four in Luke); but the major difference has less to do with that than it does the point of view!

In Matthew, you see, is talking about “those” who, by their place in the world, are placed squarely in the midst of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, in the words of Craig Barnes of Princeton Seminary, these are the qualities that describe “what life looks like under the reign of heaven, a reign that has already begun in Jesus Christ and will someday be realized.”  It offers us, writes Barnes, “a glimpse… of what it means to be a citizen of this reign of Christ… it’s a blessing, a grace that places you on a path that takes you somewhere you did not expect to go.”  So on that basis, Matthew’s words kinda sorta suggest it’s something that’s still yet to come, and as we understand the truth of the kingdom’s eventual fulfillment, that sense of what will be rings true; truly, that’s the second advent we’ll be awaiting in our worship when that season begins in a few weeks.

Matthew sets forth these “beatitudes” in a way that’s “now, but not yet,” which is fine and good and theologically correct.  But did you hear what Jesus said?  He said, “Blessed are YOU who ARE poor… Blessed are YOU who ARE hungry NOW… Blessed are YOU who weep NOW…” (again, capitalization is mine)  As Luke sets forth the “beatitudes,” it’s not something that’ll happen someday in the life to come, but a blessing that applies to life right here and right now, life as it’s truly experienced.

Because I don’t know about you, friends, but there are times in my life when I do weep, moments when any kind of laughter or joy evades me.  There’ve been moments when I’ve felt hungry, and not just for something to eat; but rather because in emptiness I’m yearning for something to fill up that space in my life.  And yes… there are times that I’m poor; poor by the world’s standards of wealth, perhaps, but more often poor in the sense of lacking hope or strength or spirit (it’s no accident, you know, that the Greek word used here for poor is ptōchoi, which refers to one who crouches or cowers in fear; in fact, it’s also where we get the slang term for spitting, ptooey, which ends ups here suggesting someone who’s been constantly spat upon in life).  I’m here to tell you, friends, that there have been moments in this life when I’ve been just about that poor in spirit; and unless I miss my guess, I suspect you can say the same!

So isn’t it good, then… isn’t it a true blessing to know that in the midst of all the difficulties and challenges that we endure in this life that ours IS the Kingdom of God; isn’t it good to know that in our emptiness we WILL be filled up with good things; isn’t it truly hopeful to have that assurance that even in the midst of all of our tears we WILL be laughing?  And while we’re on the subject, isn’t it also great to know, as Jesus says and as is translated in from The Message, that when “every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit” your faith and your allegiance to God,  not only are you “in good company,” but all heaven applauds the steadfastness of your faith?

Don’t misunderstand; Jesus is not saying that poverty and hunger, weeping and being hated are good things in and of themselves; nor is he suggesting that our relief, our comfort, our recompense is some measure of “pie in the sky,” so to speak.  But he is proclaiming that in such sufferings, there is joy that is already ours in the reality of God’s kingdom even now coming to pass; a true joy that is ours in having the healing power of the Lord with us in times of trial. To quote some words of commentary on this passage from the Taize faith community, “Hunger and poverty, weeping and hatred are sometimes unavoidable… but these situations are not the deepest reality; behind this, already just visible, God’s Kingdom is present.”  The blessedness that Jesus promises, it says, “is both an objective state of affairs for their current situation and the promise of a joy to come.”  What Jesus wants for us – truly, what Jesus promises us for the here and now – in the midst of literally the worst of what life brings you and me is “to show us the incredible newness and fundamental otherness of this reality that is the Kingdom of heaven” in our midst.

And that blessedness is good news, indeed.

Of course, it should also be said that in Luke’s version of these blessed promises, Jesus also mentions a few “woes:” as in “Woe to you who are rich… woe to you who are filled now… woe to you who are laughing now…” in fact, (referring once again to The Message version of this text) “there’s trouble ahead [for you] if you think life’s all fun and games,” or “when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them.”  Those verses echo Mary’s “Magnificat” in the Nativity story, which is no accident; this truth that the coming of Christ and his Kingdom proclaims a complete inversion of worldly ways and means; where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, when the hungry are filled “with good things,” and the rich are sent away empty. (1:52-53) In other words, friends, we need to remember that true happiness is never wholly achieved by the world’s misguided and all too often imbalanced standards, but rather by that of a kingdom that is even now being brought by a God who loves us beyond measure and wants for us to know true joy.

So let me again just state the obvious here:  life is not easy.  It’s filled with challenge and difficulty, contradictions by the number and utter uncertainty at every turn. And the sad truth is that we are all too understanding of what it means to be poor, and empty, and in mourning – if not literally or physically, then certainly spiritually – and I dare say that most of us in this sanctuary have felt the sting of being hurt or reviled or excluded in one way or another.

Like I said, Life is not easy… but that is not what all of life is about.  We know this because God in the person of Jesus Christ has loved and redeemed and brought us into his kingdom, and because of this, in the midst of this life and in the life to come, we are also blessed.

Blessed are YOU, beloved.  Blessed are you, and blessed am I.  For ours is the kingdom of God… be thinking about that as we come to table of blessing this morning.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019   Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2019 in Jesus, Life, Scripture, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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A Matter of Trust

(a sermon for February 17, 2019, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, based on  Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26)

The story goes that there were twelve members of the clergy together on a plane, all flying to a church conference in a distant city; and while in the air as sometimes happens the airplane encountered a large storm causing a great deal of turbulence during the flight.  That kind of thing is always a bit disconcerting, but the clergy were actually pretty good-natured about it; joking with their fellow passengers and the flight attendants that there was no reason to worry because, hey, there were twelve ministers on board this plane and, they hastened to add, represented a whole range of religious backgrounds; so just about every base was covered!   Well, everyone had a good laugh, eventually the turbulence subsided, and afterward one of the preachers jokingly asked the flight attendant if the pilot had been aware he’d had some “heavenly help” on board during that storm.   “Well,” said the flight attendant, “he said he was happy to have twelve ministers aboard, but given the choice, he would rather have four good engines!”

It’s true, you know; that for all the choices we have at our disposal at any given time, the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where we choose to place our trust inevitably makes all difference!

It’s actually kind of interesting to note just how many decisions in our lives end up as “a matter of trust.” The teenager you’ll let come into your home and babysit your children when they’re young; the confidence you have in a doctor’s care, or in a lawyer’s advice; the accountant you hire to handle your investments or do your taxes:  I mean, you do your research, you get referrals, you even go online to sites like “Yelp” and “Angie’s List” to check out customer feedback (!): but in the end, it comes down to whether or not you’re going to trust that service, or company, or person with that which is of great importance in your life!

Moreover, what and in whom we trust says a great deal about us, doesn’t it: where our priorities lie and what we believe to be true about our lives and living; in many ways it’s how we discern the pathways we choose to follow in this life. There are just so many choices before us – sometimes we’re aware of those choices, other times they’re made without our even realizing it – but for each one of us, sooner or later, those choices come to bear on our lives in ways positive or negative.  Like I said before, ultimately the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where – and in whom (!) – we place our trust makes all the difference!

And as the prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.”

Those words from Jeremiah, from which our Old Testament reading this morning is drawn, date back to around 600 BC, a crucial moment in Israel’s history: around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people to Babylon. So these are words that speak directly to the lives of God’s people in that time; and make no mistake, they’re words of confrontation.  Jeremiah’s message to Israel from the Lord was clear even as it was disturbing: that they needed to fortify themselves by trusting wholly in God, rather than in man-made arrangements and self-styled security, lest in abandoning their faith they be left in ruin, both personally and as a nation.

Here was a nation you see, that had placed their trust in just about everything but God – in the midst of all this upheaval the kings of Judah had increasingly begun to place their allegiances in politics, prosperity and power plays rather than in following the pathway that God would have them lead – but now here was Jeremiah reminding them that “to trust in mere mortals and [to] make mere flesh their strength,” turning their hearts away from God in the process, was to be cursed, to end up no differently than “a shrub in the desert,” wasting away from the scorching sun and the lack of water.  Better to put your trust in something that will thrive in any situation, good or bad; best to put your trust in the Lord, who is like that tree that sends out its roots by the stream: as The Message translates it, “Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season.”

A withering shrub left to die a slow and inevitable death out in the desert, on the one hand, or a leafy-green tree bearing fruit in abundance through harvest after harvest: that’s your choice, says Jeremiah.  So the question becomes then, in whom will you trust?

It’s actually a pretty good question for you and me as well.

After all, isn’t it true that we also have a tendency to place our trust in our own strength, or our own possessions, or our own ego driven style of success and fulfillment for the sake of a good life?  Is it not true that all too often our dependence in this world leans more toward the politicians and power brokers than on our faith in the Lord? Even and especially when times are hard and hope is hard to imagine, there is this all-too human temptation to believe that our way out comes with wealth or power or social acceptance or even the people and parties we vote for!   It all sounds good, and there are plenty of media outlets, social and otherwise, that will gladly reinforce the notion; but trouble with such an attitude of life is that wealth is at best, temporary; power and politics are always fleeting; and social acceptance, well, let’s just put it this way:  if you’re the flavor of the month in February, that’s wonderful, but just remember come March there’s going to be another flavor everyone flocks to, and when that time comes you’re just as apt to be put to the back of the freezer!

Jeremiah’s words serve to remind us that these kinds of utterly human pursuits are ultimately shallow in nature, and can never give us the nourishment that we need; and this is to say nothing of the way that such things leave us vulnerable to the damaging winds of life and living.  Truly, anyone who’s been there knows that all the money and the power and prestige in the world can ever change the hurt that comes with grief or hatred or struggle. The truth of it is that we need more.  There is within each one of us a deep need that can only be filled by something that is at once beyond and deeply within ourselves, and that is and can only be God!  It is only when we wholly trust in God, only with our hearts firmly rooted in the holy that we grow and flourish like leafy, life-giving branches.  When we live with our trust placed in God and God alone, it’s then that we find our true blessing.

No doubt you noticed that our gospel reading this morning is Luke’s version of Jesus’ Beatitudes (which, by the way, is not considered here a “Sermon on the Mount,” but a sermon “on a level place,” with Jesus standing there amongst “a great multitude of people” surrounding him). And it’s there that Jesus gives to the people not only a series of blessings, but also a series of “woes.” (One commentator I read this week referred to these as the “woe-beattitudes!”) And those woes are in direct relationship to the blessings.  In other words, “Blessed are you who are poor (notice that’s it not “poor in Spirit” here, like in Matthew, but “poor”) for yours is the Kingdom of God.”  And a few verses later, it’s “but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”   Blessed are you who are hungry and who weep… but woe to you who are full, because you’re going to be hungry; and woe to you who laugh now, because before long, make no mistake, you’re going to be mourning and weeping.  And here’s something interesting: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”  And what does it say later on?  “Woe to you when all speak well of you.”  So much for being Mr. or Ms. Popularity with hundreds of Facebook friends!

No doubt about it, this is one of those passages that fulfill that well-known prophecy that the gospel have a way not only of comforting the afflicted, but also, as they say, “afflicting the comfortable!”  Once again, in Jesus’ words we hear the same kind of radical reversals that Mary was singing about in the Magnificat; of how the lowly will be lifted up and powerful brought down from their thrones (Luke 1:52).  What’s being proclaimed is the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world; but in the process Jesus is also spelling out some of the very real things of this world that distract us from that kingdom and keep us from God; how placing our trust in the things of the world rather than in God in effect brings woe upon ourselves!

The question that each one of us needs to ask ourselves is this: when it comes down to the nitty-gritty in this life, in what and most importantly, in whom do we really trust?  What is it that we’ll bet our lives on?  Friends, bottom line is that if our trust is in ourselves, or in our money, or our possessions, or our wits and good looks, we’re on shaky ground.  Woe be unto us if we do that, because such things do crumble and blow away like so much scrub brush and tumbleweed.  But for those who place their trust in God, there’s blessing; for even when everything else in the world around us seems to fall away – when the money’s gone, when our ideas fail us, when our friends abandon or betray us, when it seems like we haven’t got anything left inside of us to carry on – we still have the presence, power, the peace and the nurturing care of an infinitely loving God.

Among my many small fascinations in this life is a tree that grows on a rock.

Seriously!  We’ve actually got one of these out in front of our family’s camp up in “the county;” an old yellow birch which has been clinging defiantly to a huge rock on the shore of the lake for longer than my lifetime, its long and gnarled roots wrapped all around it; and yet all the while growing and stretching its shady branches ever further over the water. Many was the time over the years growing up that I’ve marveled at that tree hanging at the angle it does, wondering how it can possibly defy gravity like that!  And even now it remains; still growing and dare I say, still thriving despite all the windswept mid-summer storms and intense winter “nor’easters” that have come at it over the years. Indeed, there have been other trees around our camp – bigger, straighter and seemingly stronger – that have fallen to the ground in that time; trees that were ultimately unable to stand firm against all that our New England weather can typically dish out.  However, come what may, this one precariously perched old tree just never seems to yield!

Of course, looks are often deceiving and upon closer examination you discover that the roots of this tree have over time reached around the rocks, pushed between and through cracks and crevices, and stretched into whatever soil it can find and eventually right into the spring fed mud of the lake itself!  That’s how, despite all outward appearances and seemingly impossible odds, this old birch tree has managed to stay strong, tall and leafy green summer after summer; long past the time when so many other trees have gone to mulch.

When our trust is in God and what God provides us we are indeed like that tree: ever clinging to the rocky ledges of life, yet ever and always surviving as our roots are drinking in the thirst-quenching glory of God’s living water.  As the song goes, when our trust and our care is in the Lord, we shall not be moved… but rest assured, we’ll also grow… we’ll grow tall and strong and lasting.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”

Blessed are those whose trust is the Lord!

Thanks be to God who makes us strong.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2019 in Epiphany, Faith, Jesus, Life, Maine, Old Testament, Sermon

 

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