Preached on 17 February 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
“Like all the gospels, Luke was written to equip ancient believers with the vision, convictions, and tools they needed to navigate their way in an imperial society – a system that was not going to go away on its own. Luke did not urge those believers to overthrow the system, but the Gospel did tell them that they were participants in a seismic, divinely-directed shift toward renewal. Those participants were not spectators, but agents endowed ‘with power from on high.’ They were empowered to love, sacrifice their prerogatives, and enact the gospel through generous hospitality.” That’s what Matt Skinner writes in his overview about preaching the Gospel of Luke in year C.[i]
Ancient believers in an imperial society. A small number of people with little influence and no power. What do they have to do with us? Well, we may not have an emperor, but there are very large, powerful entities that have a great deal of influence on the shape of our society and the world. Our society, too, can be difficult to navigate as believers.
God’s vision for the world has not changed. We, too, are called to be participants in God’s renewal, empowered by grace to love, to give of ourselves, and to live the gospel in the little part of the world we inhabit.
How does today’s reading equip us?
Well, it reveals to us something about the heart of God. It reveals God’s priorities and a bit of God’s vision. It also reveals to us our own biases, to some extent. And there’s even a bit about how we might go about participating with God.
So, let’s start out by backing up a bit.
If we had been here last week, we would have heard Jesus call the first three disciples, Peter, James, and John. Right before today’s reading, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray through the night. When day comes, he names the twelve apostles.
So, first he centers himself in God through prayer.
Then he gathers a community; he’s not going to go about this alone.
Today, we see them go together back down the mountain to a level place where a great multitude of disciples and other people have gathered. They’re from all over the countryside, even from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, way up north. They have come to be healed, to be restored, to see him, and touch him.
Jesus doesn’t go up the mountain where everyone can see him; where he can preach to them. No, he and the chosen apostles go down to be with the people. It’s significant that it’s a “level place.” Here there are no lowly, no high and mighty. It sounds a bit chaotic, all those people jostling, trying to see Jesus, to touch him, to be healed.
Jesus and the apostles move about among them and see to their needs. All are healed. Only then, does Jesus look up and begin to speak to the people gathered.
What does this tell us about God’s vision, about God’s priorities? We see that the priority is to be with people; to be among them, to heal them, to free them from the demons that hold them captive.
And what about his preaching?
If we’re not uncomfortable, we’re probably not paying attention. Not only does each blessing and woe point to a reversal, but each one is usually seen both by the people on that ancient plain and by us, as the opposite of what he says. That’s what I mean by revealing our biases. Where do you want to find yourself in that list? And how does it begin, with a “Blessed are those” or a “woe to those…?”
Here’s a challenging question, how do you feel about other people in each of those circumstances? Do you look up to them? Do you look down on them? In today’s reading, there is no looking up to or looking down on. Everyone is at the same level.
Now, let’s look at the words, blessing and woe. This isn’t a pronouncement of a final judgment between the saved and the damned. No, this is in the present.
Evidently, there are a few different words that are translated as “Blessed.” In this case, according to one commentator, it has the sense of feeling satisfied, unburdened, at peace. So often we speak of being “blessed” when we have good fortune; when things are going well. We might even see that as a sign of God’s favor. That’s not what this is about.
Being blessed may be more about our standing with God, our trust in God. So, we can be blessed even in poverty or hunger; even when weeping or when we are reviled or hated.
Similarly, “woe” is not a curse, but a word of warning: “Watch out!” Or “Beware!” It’s a call to repentance, to a change of behavior.
It’s a warning that, You may be doing well right now, but that doesn’t mean you’ve earned it, or it will always be true. It doesn’t mean that you’re God’s favorite. And especially, beware, lest you forget that you are reliant on God’s grace.
The blessings and woes bring us up short; they make us say, “wait a minute, I thought I was…” fill in the blank. They invite us to ask ourselves, and to ask God, “who am I?” Where do I stand with God? How would God have me change my behavior? Does my wealth or health blind me to God’s presence in my life?
And finally, what does today’s gospel reveal to us about God’s vision? I think we see God’s desire to be with us and among us. We see God’s vision of a world without poverty or hunger, a world in which our community shares our joys and comforts us in sorrow. A world in which all may live with dignity.
Next week, we’ll hear the rest of Jesus’ sermon.