6th Sunday after epiphany 2019

Luke 6:17-23, Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Deacon Nancy Slavin

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. 

I will begin this morning by telling you a bit about myself.  I like to imagine.  And mostly, I like to imagine myself in the various Bible scenarios, as if I was there.  Sometimes I picture myself as a servant girl, just observing Jesus as he is baptized by John.  In the birth story, I like to imagine what it would have been like if I were a midwife, encouraging Mary in the birthing of her son. What would I say to her?  And sometimes I’m just me, sitting quietly with the Jesus during trying times. I try to imagine what is he saying to me. Because of this, you will notice that I will occasionally ask you also to imagine being present in events described in the scriptures.  Now you have been warned 😊

The Gospel message from Luke, that we just heard, gives us a good glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  In it we find Jesus telling us, and modeling for us, what we can experience in God’s Kingdom.  And I believe that by hearing this account, we are invited to ask ourselves tough questions about what we believe.

The verses from Luke’s Gospel, read today, are known as Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain”.  This scenario, that Luke describes, is preceded by a verse that wasn’t included in the today’s lexionary reading.  That earlier verse tells us that, prior to what we just heard, Jesus and his chosen twelve apostles were up on a mountain.  It begins here today with Jesus and the apostles coming down from the mountain to a level place, or plain, to meet the people waiting for Jesus.  He came down to a level place, a place level with the ordinary people. Just like the person reading the Gospel in church always comes down to stand with the listeners as the Gospel is proclaimed.   If we can imagine ourselves waiting alongside all the people who came there to the plain, from far and wide, to meet Jesus, maybe we can imagine how it might have felt to have Jesus come down level to us.  He was not preaching from on high, but down among the people. He was within reach.  He was in their midst.  He was truly present with them.

The scriptures tell us that many came to hear him, and many were there to be healed by him, and all in the crowd were trying to touch him because of the power that came out of him to heal them.  I can picture the scrambling and chaos that may have been occurring.  Imagine Jesus, having an important message he wanted to proclaim to people.  A message that could change their lives.  A message about the kingdom of God.  But many of the people were interested mainly in being healed, rather hearing the message.  Maybe they were like patients I have known, who were just looking for a cure from the doctor, and not interested in the health instructions that, if followed, could greatly improve their health.

But the amazing thing is, Jesus healed all of them!  He demonstrated love and kindness, restoring health and wellness, mentally and physically.  It was a taste of the kingdom illustrated by his actions.

Then, it says, after the healings took place, then Jesus looked up at his disciples.  Not just at the twelve apostles, but all those who came to truly hear, and to learn and to follow him. Then he spoke of the kingdom of God.  And it turned their legalistic world on its head.  This glimpse into God’s kingdom revealed an upside-down kingdom compared to the standards of their world.

“Blessed are you who are poor”, he said, “for yours is the kingdom of God”.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled”.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”.

And, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice 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”.

Again, imagine yourself in that crowd, after Jesus spoke these words.  Are you leaning over to the person sitting next to you on the plain, saying, “What did he say?”?  Perhaps you sincerely want to know more because that day you are so aware of your family’s hunger and poverty, and you feel like crying because you can’t fully provide for them.  And perhaps you are also being persecuted because you and your family are true followers of this Jesus that so many people just don’t understand.  But, this kingdom of God that Jesus describes sounds like something you want to be a part of!  Yet it seems hard to understand. You want to know more!

Just like those on the plain, today we also seek to understand the kingdom of God.  This kingdom that is both now, and still to come.  This kingdom offered to the poor, where will be no hunger, and there will be laughing.  This kingdom where we can leap for joy!  This kingdom that belongs to a loving God who reaches out to us on our level.  The kingdom that we pray about in the Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

How stark is this contrast to the world in which we live (just like it was for the world in which Jesus’ followers lived)!  In the kingdom of this world, the poor are looked down upon and often made the scapegoat of multiple problems, children and adults go hungry and starve.  Of course, they weep at the injustices shown to them in this life!  And today followers of Jesus still can experience being excluded, ridiculed and discounted when their faith is known.

A few years ago, I was working a temporary nursing assignment in an ER far south of here.  That year, on Ash Wednesday, before I went to work, I stopped at a church in the vicinity of the hospital, to receive ashes.  My hair was in a style that made the ashes visible to patients and staff.  The responses I received to the ashes were varied.  Some people said nothing, some told me that I had something black smeared on my head that might want to wash off, some said, “Oh, I forgot it was Ash Wednesday”, and a few said quietly, “I’m a Christian, too”.  But the response that truly surprised me, was the not so quiet, not very kind, and sarcastic comments that I overheard some fellow nurses smirking to each other about. It was based on nothing other than my external show of faith in the form of ashes worn on my forehead.  I was not only surprised, but saddened.  It was a moment later, however, when I remembered the words of Jesus, “blessed are you when people exclude you and revile you on account of me”, in which I found consolation.

But truthfully, I wasn’t feeling very blessed at that moment.  And I know that when we experience poverty, powerlessness, empty bellies, and feelings intense enough to make us cry, we don’t feel very blessed either. 

But the blessing here that Jesus offers, is not just a feeling, or the emotion, of happiness.  The blessing here is the security of knowing that one is right with God.  Despite that the world is telling us that the good life means we must be financially prosperous, highly educated, well dressed and spoken well of by all, Jesus is saying the opposite.  He is telling us the good news, that if we follow in his footsteps, it doesn’t matter if we are poor, or disrespected, or if the world tries to shame us for our faith, the kingdom of God is and will be ours.  God notices our condition, and we can receive blessing in it when we follow Jesus.

Just as Jesus met his followers on their level in this scenario, Jesus still meets us on our level today. He lived among us on earth, as a person.  He gets it.  He understands the pressures and difficulties we face in this world.  We do not have to imagine our Lord looking down from on high.  We can experience God’s love with us now, in our lives, no matter if the world does not consider us successful and honored. How much greater for us it is to walk with Jesus in and towards God’s kingdom!

This morning I invite you to continue to reflect on this Gospel passage, and the good news therein.  How do you experience God’s kingdom in your life?

          Amen.