Epiphany 6 / 3rd Before Lent

Sunday 13 February 2022

Epiphany 6 / 3rd before Lent

Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Cor 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.  

When I was a child, whenever I sneezed, my mum would always say ‘Bless you!’  

Bless her, my mum obviously didn’t realise that as a lay person the correct phrase should have been ‘bless us’, but we’ll let her off.

Blessing someone in need, or distress, even if only the temporary distress of a sneeze is like a primal, instinctive response.  We want to let people know that they are alright.

As a priest, I am allowed, not to say encouraged and required, to be a person of blessing.  Not only do I pronounce the blessing at the end of the communion service but I bless couples on their wedding day, I bless the departed as they are buried, I bless babies when they are baptised,  I have blessed trees when they were planted and I have even blessed a tortoise at a pet service, but don’t tell the bishop.  

What does it mean to be blessed?  The word ‘bless’ shares a root with ‘bliss’ but it also means to be made holy, sanctified, anointed, consecrated, put in a right relationship with God and, most importantly, to know that you are in the right place with God.

To be blessed people is to be people who stand in God’s gaze and to know something of that bliss.  

But we don’t always feel blessed, do we?

Do you remember what the prophet Isaiah said last week, when he found himself in God’s gaze?

Woe is me.”

In Yiddish, this becomes ‘Oy vey’.  Seriously.

To be woeful is to be emptied of bliss, to be filled with sorrow and if we are even aware of God’s presence at all when we are woeful we are unlikely to experience it as joy, but more as an ‘Oy vey’ moment, not rejoicing in our closeness to God but lamenting our perceived distance.

Are we a blessed people or are we a woeful people?

Our readings today talk to us of both blessings and woes.  

In Jeremiah 17:

Cursed is the one who trusts in man…whose heart turns away from the Lord.  That person will be like a bush in the wastelands.”

“But blessed is he who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  They will be like tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream.”

We sometimes like to tell ourselves that we are uniquely challenged by the rise of secularism, atheism or humanism – we like to imagine that for all of history before us everyone has been God-fearing and observant and that our churches were always packed to the rafters.  Well, Jeremiah lived about 2600 years ago and it is clear that there were those rejected God even then, and an argument could be made that the whole story of the Bible, from the human to the angelic, is a tussle between those who trust in God and those who reject him.  

And God respects our freewill to reject him.  The reason I am not an absolute universalist is simply because I don’t think that God forces himself on those who consciously say no.  

In Jeremiah’s imagery those who put their trust in God are blessed because they are like flourishing trees which are growing beside an ever-flowing stream – they put down deep roots and are able to drink continuously from that river of life.

But those who don’t believe in the river are woeful or cursed and don’t get to partake of the living water, they have rejected it, so they are shrivelled shrubs in the wastelands, eeking out tiny bits of moisture where they can.

The Psalm set for today, which we haven’t heard read, is Psalm 1 and it echoes Jeremiah’s words:

Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked…Like a tree planted by streams of water…bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither, whatever they do it shall prosper.”

Do we want to be flourishing trees by the river or struggling shrubs in the desert?

Blessings and woes.

In the Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus gives us four blessings and four woes, mirroring each other and affirming that we have a choice in how we live but that the choices we make have consequences.

I suspect that most of us are familiar with the Sermon on the Mount and as soon as we hear the words ‘Blessed are the…’ we assume that this is the story we are hearing and some of us may even be thinking of ‘cheesemakers’ at this point – you are seen.

But this is not the Sermon on the Mount.  That is found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, and that story is given its name because in verse 1 of chapter 5 we are told that Jesus went up onto a mountainside to teach the disciples.

Today’s reading comes from chapter 6 of Luke’s Gospel and it is clear that this was not intended to be a telling of the same event as Luke tells us expressly, in verse 17:

He went down with them and stood on a level place…”   It also says in verse 20, when he began to speak, that Jesus looked up at his disciples.  

However that worked physically it is clear that Luke was making the point loud and clear that Jesus was not on a mountain and this is not intended to be the same sermon.  For that reason this event is more properly known as the Sermon on the Plain, and Luke gives us some plain speaking.

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.”

This is plainer and less spiritualised than Matthew who gives us “Blessed are the poor, in spirit.”

Don’t forget that Luke is the same gospel writer who recounts the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, which is a hymn to casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.

This blessing to the poor, the actual poor, those who have nothing and whose day to day existence is both a struggle to survive coupled with a sense of failure in a society which values wealth, is mirrored in the following woe:

            “But woe to you who are rich,

 for you have already had your comfort.”

The poor are forced to trust in God, because they have nowhere else to turn, but the rich trust in themselves, in their own success and in their own resources.  God’s heart is for those who trust in him.

            “Blessed are you who hunger now,

            for you will be satisfied.”

Again, this is plainer than Matthew’s “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Matthew lets us off the hook, provided we at least strive for righteousness.  But Luke is clear that God will bless those who feel least blessed by the world, those who are actually hungry.  And those who are involved in the food banks, or who simply watch the news, will know that hunger here is increasing all the time and is likely to get worse as the cost of living continues to bite.  Hunger is not something confined to the long ago or the far away.

Woe to you who are well fed now, 

for you will go hungry.”

I suspect that most of us here, including myself, are well fed and few of us are worrying, moment by moment, where the next meal is coming from, although we know that can change quickly.  So, we are challenged by this, and rightly so, because if we are not challenged by the teaching of Jesus then we have either already achieved sainthood this side of eternity or we are not really listening.  If we are well fed, not to say well padded, while others around us are malnourished then how is our discipleship going?

            “Blessed are you who weep now,

            for you will laugh.”

            “Woe to you who laugh now,

            for you will mourn and weep.”

I know that we have only been here for a few months, and we are still getting to know each other, but I hope you know me well enough by now to know that I do like to laugh.  I think that Christians who are always po-faced about everything not only put people off but, quite frankly, we are told elsewhere in the bible that joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

So, I really don’t think that Jesus is saying that all laughter is a sin that will be punished with mournfulness.  But I think he is saying that those who party like its 1999 whilst those outside their gates are suffering will find that when the fun stops it stops.  If only there were some current examples of people laughing and partying whilst millions of others suffered and hundreds of thousands died that I could use at this point.  You will have to use your imaginations about such things.  

Jesus binds up the broken-hearted and comforts those who mourn.  That should comfort us when we are broken-hearted but, when we are not, we should seek to do what Jesus would have us do rather than ignore the weeping around us. 

“Blessed are you when people hate you…because of the Son of Man.”

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, because that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

This is challenging to the dear old Church of England, and perhaps especially to those of us called to wear a collar within it.  As the national and established Church the CofE still seeks to be ‘the church’ for everyone and, as such, we are encouraged to be everywhere and to be involved with everything.  Dare I say it, to be the Padre from Tilling.  It is a natural thing for all of us to want to be spoken well of by everyone, to be liked and accepted wherever we go.  But this reminds us that to be a disciple of Christ in a world which does not follow Christ, risks upsetting the values of the world.  If we are not upsetting the values of the world then are we really preaching and living the values of the gospel?  

Do we merely dine with the rich benefactor for the sake of being agreeable or do we tell the rich to feed the poor?  If we do the former without also doing the latter then we are not being good news to the poor and have failed in living the life that Christ calls us to.

The Sermon on the Plain was directed at the first disciples but is a call and a challenge to all of us to the life of discipleship.  A call that turns the ways of the world upside down.  To take the beatitudes seriously is to go against the grain of the world.  Going against the grain is much less comfortable than going with it, but it should be clear that God’s blessing is for those who are most uncomfortable in this world, which should include us.