The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 17, 2019
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

From the Gospel according to Luke, “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

     Have you ever noticed how often in scripture, life is rarely described in terms of “both – and” but rather, as “either – or; this or that; thou shalt and thou shalt not?” Scripture is clear that there is an order in this world and that order frequently corresponds to our deeds and their consequences. Because of that approach to scripture, it is very easy to hear today’s lessons as either-or when, in fact, they are very much “both – and.” Even more so, their apparent messages of woe and doom are actual messages of hope, redemption, and abundant life.

    Jeremiah is one of my favorite prophets in the Old Testament. Volunteering for ministry just before the fall of the Southern Kingdom of Judah to the invading armies of Babylon, Jeremiah served during one of the darkest chapters in Israel’s history: a chapter filled with stories of exile and ruin. He is often referred to as “the weeping prophet” because he was heart-broken not only because his nation’s cities and lands were decimated by the invading Babylonians, but because he understood that this whole mess could have been avoided if God’s people had chosen to live differently: chosen as individuals to uphold God’s ways in every aspect of their daily life. For Jeremiah, the collective consequences of the people’s individual choices had brought about the ruin of everything they held dear.

     In today’s reading, Jeremiah affirms that a nation’s problems are not caused by governments or religions, one’s gender or ethnic origin, whether a nation has walls at its borders or anything else, but rather, solely by the deeply rooted sins that abide in our individual hearts. Jeremiah describes the heart as devious and perverse and while he confesses that he does not comprehend the human heart, he knows that God is watching it all the time and acting accordingly. We tend to interpret this aspect of Jeremiah’s message to mean that God is forever waiting for us to step out of line so that God can punish us. But no, Jeremiah is not a prophet of doom and gloom, but rather, a messenger of hope, redemption and abundant life.

See, Jeremiah understands that life’s hardships are often exacerbated by our choices and inclinations – choices and inclinations deeply seated in our hearts. But he also knows that while humans tend to turn away from the plight of others, God never walks away. God will not be deterred by our choices. God forever calls us into a wholesome and healing way of life. All we need do is ask – but ask from the heart. See, for Jeremiah, the one who brought about the order of the world in creation sustains it in and through the lives of its creatures. That order is called justice and righteousness and that order begins in the human heart. Our hearts direct how we choose to live our daily lives, and how we choose to live our daily lives directs the policies of cities and nations. Jeremiah urges God’s people to let God into the depths of our hearts – our minds – cleanse us from sin and bring forth in and through us, new life.  Yes, decisions have consequences and yet, Jeremiah affirms that life is never “either-or,” but rather, “both-and.” Regardless of our decisions God is always waiting to forgive and restore those who will turn and embrace God.     

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from his 1stLetter to the Corinthians seems to offer an either-or situation. Either we believe in the bodily resurrection of our Lord or we don’t. For those who don’t, the Christian way of life becomes a system of ethics, of values, of turning the other cheek. It’s a good way to live, but it misses the deeper and ultimately, the truly good news of the gospel.  See, for Paul, the ultimate enemy in this world is not sin, but rather, death. A little later in this same chapter Paul says, “the sting of death is sin (15:56)” and in Romans he says, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death is the greater enemy. And if Jesus is not physically raised from the dead, then God is not stronger than death. And if God is not stronger than death, then God is powerless to forgive sin. No, in being raised from the dead, everything that separates us from God and one another – sin and death (not either-or, but both-and) have been vanquished and new life is ours for the asking. For St. Paul that “both-and” is the real good news of the gospel and it is for me, too.

    All right, Fr. Allan we hear you about this both-and but what about today’s gospel lesson? It’s pretty clear that it’s either-or. Well I am glad you asked!

    One of the greatest tragedies in Christian history is the tendency of many church leaders (usually leaders of wealth or those holding great authority) to use the words of The Beatitudes – the more common name affixed to today’s gospel lesson – as way to placate the hungry, the poor and the destitute as if it is God’s will that they suffer. “Oh, I know you’re hungry today and I really should do something to resolve world hunger, but someday in heaven you’ll have plenty to eat so hang in there.” Balderdash! This passage is not about the world to come nor is it a series of either-or’s. It is about the realities of human life and God’s kingdom – a kingdom Jesus urges his followers to make a reality right now.

     At this point in his ministry, Jesus has become a celebrity. He has already told his Synagogue that he is the promised Christ and that he is going to minister to the Gentiles because in God’s kingdom all are welcome. Beginning in Luke Chapter 5 and continuing up through today’s reading, Jesus has healed some lepers, Peter’s mother-in-law, a paralytic, and a man with a withered arm. Understandably, people have flocked to hear him. But he is more than a miracle worker. He has also called people to repent, to forgive each other, to get rid of every impediment – every thought word and deed that comes from their hearts and minds – to rid themselves of everything that separates them from God and from their neighbor. Now comes this famous passage filled with blessings and woes. It does seem like Jesus is describing the world in terms of either-or, as if those who have wealth now, eat well, laugh and enjoy life are going to “get their’s” at the last judgement – and frankly, that’s what a lot of Christians think and teach. But Jesus is doing the opposite: he is speaking in terms of “both-and” and applying them to right now.

     Jesus has been preaching about the kingdom of God: repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand; change how you choose to live for God’s realm is on the horizon; love your neighbor as yourself because that’s what God’s kingdom is about; in God’s kingdom all are welcome because in God’s kingdom nothing divides us – we are one people created in God’s own image. Here in this passage Jesus speaks about the realities of daily human life: there are rich and poor, happy and sad, those who laugh and those who mourn. Bad things happen to good people just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust. No matter how much we plan ahead. No matter how much we save and invest, life happens. Here Jesus reminds his followers that in God’s kingdom all are part of a single community: we all know what it is like to laugh just as we know what it is like to weep. And in true communities, people look after each other. This passage isn’t about condemning the wealthy nor placating the poor, but rather, it is reminding Jesus’ followers that in God’s kingdom the poor are not cursed, but rather, deserving recipients of divine and earthly care, those who mourn are comforted by those who know how precious life is, those of means practice extreme generosity, and those who have been cursed and shunned by others – even by their own families, are welcomed home.

     How is this possible? Well, as St. Paul said, in Christ death and sin are vanquished and in Christ, we have become a new creation – a creation whose trust is not only in the Lord as Jeremiah said, but whose trust is the Lord. And those whose trust is the Lord, those who have opened their hearts and minds to the transforming power of God’s love, know that regardless of who or what we are, or whatever circumstances we face, we stand with Jesus on a level plain.

     Friends, in Christ we are one people, one body, whose trust is the Lord. So it is in God’s kingdom and so it must be in the hearts and minds of God’s people - this beloved community called Holy Cross. God grant us the grace to let this be true for us and in us. Amen.