Jeremiah 17:5-10 † Psalm 1 † 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 † Luke 6:17-26
As I was studying our texts for today, I found myself rooting around for a way to understand blessing as it is portrayed in Luke from Jesus: Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you who weep now. God is on your side.
But the more I tried to unpack this idea, the more I tried to understand how really this translates into blessing, the more stuck I got. How is it a blessing to be hungry now even if you’ll get something later? How is it blessing to weep now, simply for the promise of a laugh later? Sure, there are some ways to get at this, but they are problematic, too often approaching some twisted endorsement for suffering or persecution. And how is the promise of the Kingdom a blessing now for a poor one who has nothing and is in danger?
If I’m honest, I have to admit I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know how to understand this idea of blessing. I don’t understand how it is a blessing to be poor and to go without and to live on the edges of society. I don’t see it. I wish I did, but I don’t. Perhaps you do.
Given that, I’ve realized I’m not in a position to unpack this first part of the passage in Luke that is blunt and gritty and material and so much in contrast to the ethereal “blessed are the poor in spirit” that Jesus proclaims in Matthew.[i]
At least part of the problem, if not all, of course, is that I’m not poor. How should I expect to understand something I haven’t experienced—especially something as hard as this? And the fact is, most, if not all of us, by objective standards are not poor. If we measure ourselves and our wealth and well-being through the arc of history, this is abundantly clear. We have access to food and the basic resources needed for survival in far greater quantity and more reliably than previous generations and even more so than our pre-modern ancestors. And even if we measure ourselves in comparison to the world population as it is today, it is difficult to argue we are poor by any standard.
Num. 31: 1-7, 25-31 and Mark 5:1-20
Scott has told me that St. Andrew is doing intentional work around being a good neighbor in your immediate community. When he invited me to preach to the question of how the church might be called to extend that neighbor love to military veterans in the area, I felt honored and excited, and I was, once again, reminded of the remarkable way that the Holy Spirit moves within us and between us.
You see, that very question has been at the growing edge of my ministry as a VA Chaplain for the past couple of years, as my clinical focus has shifted into outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment. Through specialized training in the areas of PTSD and Moral Injury, and with deepening experience working with veterans, I am coming to understand the essential role of community in the healing of our wounded warriors. As a representative of the Church within the secular setting of the healthcare clinic, I’m sad to say that I’ve been made aware of ways in which we have fallen short of our call to embody Christ’s compassion and prophetic love in our communities. But I am also hopeful and energized by the potential we have to step up and step into our call to be agents of healing and reconciliation in the world.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 † Psalm 19 † 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a † Luke 4:14-21
You’ve probably heard the one about lies and statistics. It’s a quote from Mark Twain, from about 1906 that he attributed to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. Rather than repeat it here, let me just defer to a less colorful paraphrase of it from a letter to the editor of the British newspaper the National Observer: “Sir, —It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.”[I]
Anyway, I found myself thinking about this, and about statistics in particular, as I was preparing for today, and trying to get a sense of what Luke is trying to claim about Jesus and his work in this text. Jesus stands up among his hometown folk and reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,” And then the rest of it reads like a mission statement, which is, I think, Luke’s purpose. This, Luke suggests, is what Jesus is up to, what he is about, what God is doing in this promised one of unprecedented power and truth. “He has anointed me,” Jesus reads,
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[ii]
The passage is plain, and the work is straightforward, although it may take a little unpacking. But Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his recent book Tenacious Solidarity is concerned that we may miss the plain sense of the text. Here’s why. He says: “we have been schooled, for a variety of reasons, to read the Bible in categories that are individualistic, privatistic, other-worldly, and “spiritual.”[iii]
Now, he is getting old. Perhaps he’s worried about what he sees, as he nears the twilight of his long career and his life. But he makes a compelling case that we are prone to step away from the plain meaning of this gospel to our peril.
Isaiah 62:1-5 † Psalm 36:5-10 † 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 † John 2:1-11
So what is going on here?
Is this a story about a wedding that hasn’t been planned very well, a potential social disaster, a mother and son bickering because they don’t want their friends to be embarrassed? It could be. “Woman”--mother, why are you asking me. It’s not my time. And yet, apparently it is. Jesus’ objection seems to drown in the flow of the story as water jars are quickly filled, as an oblivious steward is astounded, and as a wedding is saved with about 400 bottles of really good wine no one accounted for.
Or maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe the party wasn’t about to collapse. Maybe this wasn’t about poor planning. It could have been even worse: a story about a poor, struggling family doing their best to pull off a celebration demanded by social customs that they could not afford. Suddenly this gift not only saves the day, but delivers them from shame.
Or, it could be that this was a celebration that was simply winding down: “When the wine had run out,” the story goes, as if this was the expectation, as if there was an understanding that all good celebrations have a closing time.
If we read it that way, this becomes gratuitous. A story about abundance for the sake of abundance—unnecessary, saving nothing, a sign, as John tells us, the “first of his signs” of a story and a savior that is so full of life that nothing will be able to hold it back—not powers or principalities, armies or political leaders. Gratuitousness, generosity, an onslaught of extravagance. There are many ways we could read this. The story does not seem to tip its hand.
This is a sign—the first of his signs, says the text. But a sign of what? What do the disciples see that makes them believe in him and sets this greater story in motion?
Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
I’m currently reading two books side-by-side. I don’t say that to impress you. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I planned it. Mostly, I fell into it. If I were more honest, I’d tell you that I can’t bear to read the one alone, so it is, as much as anything, a matter of survival.
The one—the hard one, the devastating one—is a book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I’ve talked about him before and about at least two of his numerous previous books. One is called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The self-evident title reflected on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another, Losing Moses on the Freeway, was an examination of the ten commandments as they relate to American culture. I recommend them both.
In addition to his years in the Balkans, the Americas and the Middle East, Hedges’ writing is informed by his religious education as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School—thus the reflection he did on the commandments.
Hedges is a devastating writer. He writes in excruciating detail about the state of things, creating a provocative and difficult-to-deny indictment on where we are currently—the decay of American democracy, and perhaps even civilization itself as the common good has been sacrificed at the altar of greed. “We cannot battle racism, bigotry, and hate crimes, often stoked by the ruling elites,” he contends, “without first battling for economic justice.”[I]
Isaiah 9:2-6 † Hebrews 1:1-3a, 5-12 † Luke 2:1-20
It is not a secret, this story. It’s no mystery either under these stars, in this realm, in this moment. The simple truth of this night is that steadfast love is what holds us. Steadfast love is what promises a future in even the most uncertain times. Steadfast love is what turns any crisis, any unstable and dangerous instant into possibility and promise and salvation.
This is not to say that suffering and death suddenly cease. It is not to say that tyrants have not and do not control more than they should. If anything, it anticipates that instability, suffering, and danger ramp up. This too, is surely obvious to any who care to pay attention to what happens to those who receive the shorthand designation “the least of these” in any given time.
1 Sam. 2:18-20, 26; † Ps.148; † Col.3:12-17; † Luke 2:41-52
So tell me if this sounds familiar: “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you…”
Let me stop right there to ask you: Is it familiar?
It sounds like Elizabeth, bursting out in song when Mary shows up at her doorstep, doesn’t it? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” It sounds like a song for Mary, mother of Jesus, for gentle Mary, meek and mild.
But, as you may have guessed, this isn’t that. It’s actually a quote from the book of Judith, which you and I both know is not in our Bible, that is, not in the Protestant canon. But it is in the Septuagint, which is the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament that Jesus would have known. It is also in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons.
So I think we can talk about her, and some of the other women who were, like Mary, highly favored.
Zephaniah 3:14-20 † Isaiah 12:2-6 † Philippians 4:4-7 † Luke 3:7-18
Well that was quite a turn wasn’t it. From the smooth certain assurances of the psalm:
“Surely, it is God who saves me;
I will trust and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,
and God will be my Savior.”
And from the bright jubilation of Zephaniah:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.”
And from the lovely appeal for gentleness and patient prayer in Philippians:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
From all of that to John:
“You brood of vipers – who told you to flee from the time to come…..His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”
Malachi 3:1-4 † Luke 1:68-79 † Philippians 1:3-11 † Luke 3:1-6
Righteousness. It’s right there in that first reading, this big word in our faith, but it is there all over the place in the readings, this word that, I suspect for some of us, has lost a bit of its luster. It may be due for a shining, a brightening up, so we can see it again for what it says and for what we hope, and for who we are.
God will refine them, purify them until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness, Malachi imagines. The writer to the Philippian church echoes this sense of the power of God through the practicing of this good news to sharpen and purify those who follow this way through generosity and largeness of heart. This is, in effect, Isaiah’s making straight the way for God’s return that John the Baptist cries out for in the wilderness, for the things that make for peace and goodness, for much of what we may notice to be missing these days.
The ritual around the funeral of our 41st president, George H. W. Bush this past week highlighted for me some of these things for which we long. Perhaps for you too—the remembering of a time and a way of being connected to others that seems in short supply these days.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 † Psalm 93 † Revelation 1:4b-8 † John 18:33-37
Last week, we met Jesus in Mark, looking with his disciples at the great temple of Solomon. “Do you see these stones?” he asked. Not one will be left on another. He was warning them not to trust in what seems to be powerful, but instead to see and to heed the signs that speak to what is true, what is really going on, to a clear-eyed assessment that refuses to turn away from what we would rather not notice, whether hidden behind great walls or institutional privilege or fake news.
As a way of trying to illustrate this, with some fear and trembling, I showed you some pictures from the news that might serve as signs of this very thing, of a reality that should and has snapped us to attention as a society, that should impress on us the significance of the challenges we are facing so that we can more clearly look for the hope that is ours when, like a thing with feathers, it alights in our midst.
There was a strong and mixed response to these images last Sunday and early in the week. To all of you who engaged in one way or another, I am grateful. To those of you who were troubled, let me first of all offer my apology to you. This thing we do from Sunday to Sunday is a strange and wild beast, and the power and authority that you give to those of us who speak to what is essentially a captive audience—especially one of all ages and experiences—is a fearsome thing.
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