February 17, 2019

“A Reversal of Fortune”

Luke 6:17-26


Today’s passage comes just after the first 12 disciples have been assembled by Jesus. This is the first real teaching in Luke’s gospel of the 12. Jesus wanted them to get the main focus of his teaching, the nature of their mission. This is similar to the officer training retreat we had back in early January. New deacons and elders that had been chosen by the Spirit through our nominating committee and congregation assembled together for initial instruction with me on a Saturday morning, and an overview of their ministry. That is in effect what Jesus did with the 12- an officers training. He didn’t give them the Book of Order, however, or go through a list of duties. He began with a description of the vision for God’s kingdom, or what many more progressive theologians call it, the kindom of God. Rev. Ginger Gaines- Cirelli, author of the book we studied last fall, Sacred Resistance wrote, “At our church, we often use the word kindom in place of kingdom to reflect gender-neutral view of God’s community, the kinship we share with all of humanity, and the belief that God’s vision for creation is about loving, mutual relationship.” This kinship we share with all humanity, the kindom of God was to be both a present reality worked for and a future hope.


The structure of this teaching is centered on blessings and woes- point/ counterpoint. Point one-, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kindom of God.” Those who are poor are to be lifted up, fed, helped, recognized, valued, and loved, for the kindom of God belongs to them. Counterpoint- “But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your comfort.” How do these two opposing statements apply to us?


First- “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kindom of God.”  For those of you who came to our Celebration of Ministry meeting on January 27, you may’ve noticed the table decorations. On most of the tables, there were paper origami flower arrangements. Those were made by a recent winter shelter resident named Wally, who now has a place to call home. Wally is trying to start up a business with these origami flowers, to help him reclaim his life and get back on his feet. Through buying those arrangements using church funds, we can glimpse what the kindom is to be like the kinship we share with people like Wally and the belief that God’s vision for creation is about a loving, mutual relationship.


Notice that this statement from Jesus is not some far off future eschatological hope, but a present reality. Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours NOW, in this moment.” We look around us now, in our own community and throughout the world and see poverty in every corner. If the poor are to have ownership of God’s kindom here and now, then we still have much work to do to honor their standing with God. St. Augustine of Hippo said, “Poverty is the load of some, and wealth is the load of others, perhaps the great load of the two. Bear the load of your neighbor’s poverty, and let him bear with you the load of your wealth. You lighten your load by lightening his.”


Now then, what about Jesus’ first “Woe to you” statement? According to theologian William Barclay, one way of interpreting the "woes" is to understand the root meaning of the word Jesus uses for "have" when he says in verse 24: "Woe to you who are rich because you have all the comfort you are going to get." Here the word "have" means “receiving full payment of an account.” Barclay rephrased the verse to read: "If you set your heart and bend your whole energies to obtain the things which the world values, you will get them, but that is all you will ever get;”


To those of us who are rich, myself included- those of us who have more than others- and for the most part, that means almost 2/3 of America’s population, and a good number of Ashlandians and Medforidans- Jesus says we who have much have work to do if we too want ownership of God’s kindom. So often we think that wealth and prosperity are signs of God's favor. Yet here Jesus seems to suggest otherwise. Theologian George Swinnock said, “Many a man’s gold has cost him his God.” We are called in this passage to give- to give of ourselves, our possessions, our riches so that our wealth will not get in the way of our relationship with God. This means giving what we can consistently to local and global charities and organizations that work with and for the poor. We share our wealth, our comfort with those who are uncomforted, and our woes turn to blessings from God, and we receive so much more in this life. Fernando de Rojas said, “The use of riches is better than their possession.”


Next, Jesus speaks of those who are hungry and says that one day, they will be satisfied. This is a future, eschatological hope which we are also called to work for here and now. Its antithesis is “Woe to those who are well fed now, for they will go hungry,” a reversal of fortune, so to speak. Now I cannot say that I have ever worried about having enough food in my house, although there were some lean times for my family when my Dad was laid off from his job as an aerospace engineer back during the space race years of the 1960s. It took him a while to get back on his feet, and we struggled financially. Still, we were better off than many families, and I never went hungry, although I admit to getting a little tired of eating a hamburger in 100 different ways and extending that hamburger with Soy burger...


I did get to experience this reversal of fortune on a regular basis at the church I served in Sacramento back in the 1990s, however every Lenten season, when we would gather the youth of our church for a 30 hour fast to help raise money for the ministry of World Vision. Junior and senior highers raised money by pledging to eat no food for the entire 30 hours, and it wasn’t easy-Teenagers are walking eating machines. I would find myself each year, leading this event with a grumbling stomach, trying to keep hungry kids engaged in a prolonged fast experience without killing each other. It was particularly difficult when we would wake up the morning of the fast, having subsisted on drinking water only for about 15 hours, and would get up to assemble sack lunches for the unhoused. Boy those sandwiches and bags of chips looked so good! I found that in these fast periods, I realized what it might be like to live with hunger every day. I realized that the headache I had because I hadn’t gotten enough to eat was going to last only for a weekend, while those who were hungry all the time had that same headache all the time, and I was humbled before God. I was so thankful for the potluck meal we would get to end our fast. Everything tasted wonderful, and I was grateful for each mouthful, as I remembered that so many others in the world had no potluck to end their hunger. In those moments of want, we can learn so much. We remember the poor of the world, their needs and wants more readily. It is in these moments of deprivation that God can teach us most. That is one of the reasons I hope to have another small group during lent which will fast with me once a week. Thomas A Kempis said, “When you feel all has been lost, sometimes the greatest gain is ready to be yours.”


Next comes the statement, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” and its opposite, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” Life is a mixture of joy and sorrow, happiness and mourning. Jesus warns us that a disciple is not removed from a journey through the valley of the shadow. All of us at one time or another will struggle in this life. All of us at one time or another will mourn. We hold the Freed family in our prayers as they say goodbye all too suddenly to a son, husband, and father. Life isn’t supposed to be this way- parents aren’t supposed to have to bury their children. Grief and loss in the valley of the shadow are difficult and often dark, to say the least. And yet, in these moments of deep sorrow, after time and contemplation, we find that our lives can be deepened, our perspective changed. Our own grief and loss help us to understand and appreciate the pain of others as they mourn. Thomas De Quincy said, “Deep is the plowing of grief! But often-times less would not suffice for the agriculture of God.”


Finally, Jesus tells his disciples that the road ahead will be tough- following him will not bring about popularity, accolades or standing in human society, “Blessed are you when others hate you when they exclude and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day, because great is your reward in heaven.” He reminds them that those who had followed God before, the prophets, were treated similarly. He counters the blessing with the statement, “Woe to you who all people speak well of for the false prophets were spoken well of also.” Our goal as Christians isn’t to be popular, to be false prophets- to tell folks that the message of the gospel is to be prosperous and happy or to be well liked in society and not challenge those places in society that need to be turned upside-down. Again, Rev. Gaines-Cirelli wrote, “To be prophetic Christian witness is to correctly live, speak, believe and choose in ways counter to the dominant culture.” Our goal is to serve and follow Christ and to tell the truth of the gospel- to bring about a reversal of fortune, to lift up those who are poor, tear down the walls of oppression and challenge the status quo. It is to bring the message of the kindom-the kinship we share with all of humanity, and the belief that God’s vision for creation is about a loving, mutual relationship for the whole world. Bearing such a message will not win us any popularity contests.


Jesus’ teachings continue to be scandalous and provocative because they overturn our conventional expectations. The sermon on the plain is a constant challenge to reorder our priorities in this life with a priority of working for the kindom. Jesus’ first teaching to the disciples calls us to take our discipleship seriously, to help bring about a reversal of fortune in this life, to help the poor not just because they are in need, but more importantly because they are highly exalted in God’s kindom. Jesus warns that we too will suffer- we will at times lack basic necessities and comforts; we too will feel the terrible sting of loss and mourning; we too will feel the rejection of others for following Christ. Yet in those moments God can mold and shape us, change our perspectives.


So, like the first disciples who gathered, we modern-day disciples of Jesus have received our training for the day. May we go out from this place, and work to bring about God’s kindom, helping others in need, confident in both the highs and lows of this earthly life that God will sustain us, change us and is always with us. Alleluia! Amen.

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