A Sermon for Plymouth Church in Framingham, UCC
February 17, 2019
Audio File (Sermon Only):
Introduction to the Gospel Reading
This morning we hear a text that is both familiar and surprising. It includes Luke’s Beatitudes which the Lectionary only includes in the years when the Epiphany Season lasts longer than usual – in fact the Lectionary hasn’t included Luke’s beatitudes in almost a decade. While they start off sounding much like Matthew’s very familiar beatitudes, I invite you to listen with fresh ears for Luke’s particular interpretation of who is blessed. These beatitudes have an edge and a challenge. Listen for God’s word to you in Luke 6.
17He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)
Pastor Will made an excellent point last week, highlighting the back story that led to Simon, James and John choosing to drop everything and follow Jesus.
There’s a backstory to Jesus’ words, Blessed are you who are poor.
The writer of Luke wanted us to know, Jesus cared for the poorest and most marginalized folks.
You can trace it all the way back to before his birth, when Mary rejoices in God’s care for the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed.
You know it from the people who heard the good news first, poor shepherds on the hillside.
You can hear it in Jesus’ reading of the scroll of Isaiah, the first time he preached in the synagogue where he grew up:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
You can tell from the people he healed and liberated in the early parts of this gospel:
There was a man with a demon – we would say a man struggling with mental illness, most certainly on the margins of the synagogue and community – whom Jesus looked upon with compassion and healed. A woman, Simon’s mother in law, Luke doesn’t even give her a name but Jesus raised her up from fever. A leper, most certainly poor and struggling – skin ailments in the first century were often a side effect of poverty. A paralyzed man, rich in friends but poor in health and wealth. And on the other end of the spectrum, tax collectors and sinners who through his compassion repented and began anew. Luke wants us to know that Jesus ministered to and with the poor, the hungry, the folks on the outside, the folks who were rejected, the folks who had reason to weep.
He knew these folks.
He’d been walking around, from town to town, for a little while by then. This preacher had earned their trust at the bedside.
Some of them, there on the plain, were people he’d already met and healed, who chose to follow him, who chose to bring their neighbors and their family to be healed.
So when he said, you are blessed, he was speaking directly to people he knew, people he had already blessed.
There is another part of the backstory, one we sometimes overlook but that matters an awful lot.
Jesus himself was poor.
I spent some time this week with the wisdom of Howard Thurman, who wrote in 1949, “Jesus was a poor Jew….The economic predicament with which he as identified in birth placed him initially with the great mass of men on the earth. The masses of the earth are poor….in his poverty he was more truly Son of man than he would have been if the incident of family or birth had made him a rich son of Israel.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 7) Writing just two years ago, the co-leader of the new Poor People’s Campaign said it similarly: “Jesus comes to his ministry from his own earthly poverty: from his experience of the severe dispossession and subjugation of the Roman Empire….[he is] a savior of the poor who is poor himself.” (Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharis. pages 76, 77) Not only was he poor, but 70-90% of the folks around him were poor, under the Roman Empire. (Theoharis, pages 83-84) Think about that percentage – we’re going to come back there.
It matters, don’t you think, that Jesus was speaking to people whose experience he understood because their experience was his, also. It matters that God’s child not only became human but lived as a poor and marginalized person. When he preached, Jesus was not just saying to them, I am here for you – he was saying, I am one of you. He wasn’t as much preaching to them, as preaching among them.
He’d taken a retreat, on the hillside, with some of his disciples. And then he led them down the hillside, onto a level place, into the midst of the people, to show these who would minister in his name what his commitments were.
Perhaps he found there, waiting on the plain, interspersed among the crowd,
Simon’s mother in law and a man who could once again walk and another whose demons were quieted.
And to them he said,
Blessed are you who are poor…
Perhaps as he said it, he was making eye contact with the one whose skin was clear, and to someone who saw that overflowing net of fish.
They turned to each other and nodded. They knew it was true.
Blessed are you who are hungry…
Perhaps as he said it, he made eye contact with the tax collectors and sinners who had eaten with him just the other day.
They turned to each other and nodded. They knew it was true.
Blessed are you who weep…
Five friends, one of whom they had carried to Jesus, turned to each other and nodded. They knew it was true.
Luke wants us to know, Jesus had a focus. A focus and a calling to serve the poor, to re-center the outcast and to liberate the oppressed. Jesus’ healings, and his teachings, were aimed toward liberation. He ministered on behalf of, and for the survival of a besieged people. (This idea comes from a group Bible & preaching study led by Richard Horseley in November 2018.) When he said, yours is the kingdom of God, to a people without power in the Roman economy, he was granting power in God’s economy. To a people without dignity, he was blessing. He was turning the tables on Empire by declaring the already but not yet truth of God’s own reign.
What we learn in Luke’s beatitudes, according to Debie Thomas, is: “If you want to know where God’s heart is…look to the world’s most reviled, wretched, starving, grieving, shamed and desperate people. They are the fortunate ones. They are the blessed ones on whom God’s promise of more and better rests….The very fact that Jesus prefaces this hard teaching by alleviating suffering in every way possible suggests that he does not valorize misery for its own sake. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, and in fact, Jesus’s ministry is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and joy….” ( Debie Thomas, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2089-blessings-and-woes )
But then there are the woes.
I’m tempted here to do what Sweet Honey and the Rock do with the Beatitudes, which is to just wrap up on the Blesseds…. Hey, I’ve preached ten minutes already, I can sit on down now.
Because when he proclaims the woes, well, Jesus might just be making eye contact with me.
Some folks in this room, not everyone, but some of us, might hear ourselves in these words: woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing….for you will mourn and weep.
Friends, there is good news for those of us feeling uncomfortable with the second half of this text, and the good news for us also comes in the backstory.
It’s right there in Luke 5. His name was Levi and he was a tax collector. He was one of the people Jesus met who was part of the unjust economic system that had made 90% of the people in the Roman Empire poor. And to Levi, Jesus made an invitation to discipleship. And Levi responded. In the first months of his ministry, Jesus healed the sick and liberated the oppressed; in the first months of his ministry, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and led them to new life, too.
It comes to us in Isaiah 40, the vision God has for the world:
4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
This is good news for mountain and valley alike, and it is good news for us, the poor and the rich, for everyone who wants to be part of the kindom of God.
I am just getting to know you and to get to know Framingham.
But here are a couple of the things I’ve discovered so far.
In 2018 there were 20000 folks experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts and that was double the rate from 1990. We had the largest increase in homelessness in 2018 of any state in the US.
I’ve discovered the poverty rate in Framingham is 11.5%. That’s not the 90% rate of the Roman Empire, but it’s too much.
I’ve also discovered our Outreach group has deep relationships with the shelters and the organizations that are working with folks experiencing homelessness and poverty in Framingham. I’ve discovered that this church is part of good work liberating the poor here in this place and I am sure if you want to know more, people are ready to tell you.
Blessed to be a blessing is the phrase that comes to mind.
And if we turned our attention to places Jesus attention would also be in 2019 – racism, climate change, or homophobia – we would be able to name people and teams working for justice here, thanks be to God.
Friends we are called, poor or rich, hungry or fed, weeping or rejoicing, to be part of the already but not yet of God’s reign, lifting up every valley and blessing everyone who stands in need of liberation. If we are poor then let us rejoice that the already-but-not-yet, blessing and liberation of God’s own reign include us – and agitate for it just like that poor prophet did on the plain. If we worry that Jesus’ woes are directed at us, then let us determine to be part of the building up of God’s own kindom.