Sermon - Sixth after Epiphany, February 17 2019

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C
February 17, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

Blessings and curses are nothing new – they were a common form of treaty between local kings and suzerains (over-kings, emperors).  Judah ran into trouble with Babylon because the king in Jerusalem tried to break the treaty with the Babylonians – admittedly, he’d been forced into signing, but the repercussions were severe in the extreme nonetheless.

The language of such treaties typically was along these lines:  “If you do thus-and-so, the king will reward you, but if you do this or that, the king will fall upon you with many armies and you will be destroyed.”

We hear echoes of such a treaty between God and the people of God in this selection from Jeremiah, as one example.  Do not trust in human beings; trust in GOD.  The one will lead to disappointment; the other to blessings and abundance.  Trusting in human beings is like being a shrub in the desert, with no water, with no growth, with only dryness and dullness and death; whereas trusting in God is like being a tree by a deep, deep river, filled to capacity with all that is necessary to thrive and grow and rejoice, and to provide a home for the birds and animals, to share the seed with those who hunger.

One commentator wrote: “This theme of radical trust in God, over and above dependence on human means of achievement or security, is deeply rooted in Christian theology. A radical trust in God lay at the heart of the conversion of Augustine and the same trust prompted an epiphany for Martin Luther that sparked the Protestant Reformation.”[1]

And today, we hear a similar approach from Jesus:  Blessed are you who are poor … and woe to you who are rich….

I think it’s fair to conclude that God isn’t looking to make us rich.  The abundance that comes to us is never intended for ourselves alone.  We are part of something larger than just ourselves, and God is looking for us to share what we have with those who have nothing / less. 

Still, we have a tendency to act like we earned it – and in one sense we did, but we likely only earned it because conditions were right.  And we act like, since we earned it, it belongs to us, and should not be taken away.  We have a strong feeling about property.  Really strong.  For most of us, to hear that we need to share it, feels like our very survival is at stake.

What we hold, we hold tightly.

Back in the bad old days of slavery, every time a slave escaped and was captured, s/he would be punished – whipped, chained, locked up, sold south, whatever.  Slaves were the property of the slaveholders – they were not human; they were property.  And the owners were not going to let go of what they owned, what they felt belonged to them, what they felt they earned, and therefore deserved to keep. 

No one should take it from them; certainly not the government – in fact, most of them were involved in government, and they set the rules.  Every time there was an uprising of any sort, it was put down with brutal cruelty, and the whole non-slave population was required to assist in that.  And the laws were changed to make it ever harder to get out from under the boot of the oppressor.

We know about the Fugitive Slave Law – that affected people in the non-slave states, too.  People who worked on the Underground Railroad were subject to arrest, fines, jail time, and even extra-legal extradition, if the slave catchers caught them. 

Today, slavery is, fortunately, not the issue – but property is still something that no one wants to lose: whether that property is a house, a car, … a gun, or an idea … or an ideal.  That’s one of the reasons our politics are so rife with conflict.  We are arguing about tightly held beliefs, ideas, and ideals, and about our visions of what the country is or ought to be.

And we are really fierce about it.

Yet last week, we heard that Simon and James and John walked away from all that they owned, all they earned, all they had, to follow this itinerant rabbi all over the country side.  Something compelled them to let go.  Something overpowered them, but not in the way the emperors did.  They weren’t forced, but they had no choice. 

Can you see the difference?  They’d simply given up choosing the way their lives were “supposed” to go.

And today we hear that Jesus wasn’t having any of that possessiveness.  He was really clear.  Woe to the rich while others have nothing; woe to those who were full while others are hungry; woe to those without compassion, who laugh at and mock those in distress.


That’s not all he had to say, though.  Because he also spoke blessings: blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who weep – for all you need shall be provided.

Blessed are those who are persecuted in Jesus’ name; woe to those who are praised by the crowds.

There’s a saying: that God – or the Scriptures – or the preacher whose doing the job right – comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable.

We have a tendency to put our trust in human beings, in human things, in ourselves and in our abilities and in our possessions – all the things we can hear, smell, touch, and hold.  And we may catch a glimpse of the things of God, but see them?  Touch them?  Hold them?  That’s a different thing.  It makes sense; it’s practical, to trust in what we can touch and hold; we know it’s right here, and if we hold on tightly enough, it always will be here.

But, we say, the day will come, when it isn’t.  Then what?  It is fear that makes us hold on so hard to what we have.  Fear.  The fear that we will fall off the cliff, or down the stairs, or into debt, or into loss and despair.  We are afraid.

But when Jesus tells the disciples that they are blessed who are hungry, for they will be fed; they are blessed when they are poor, for theirs will be the kingdom of God; they are blessed who weep and mourn, for they will be comforted; they are blessed when cursed when they follow Jesus, because they will have a great reward in heaven –what does all this mean?

That we need not fear.  We do not need to be afraid; for in every setback, God is present; in every loss, God is present; in every trouble, God is present – and why?  Because we are beloved of God.  Whether we are poor – or rich – we are beloved of God.  Therefore we should not be afraid to share what we have – the more we give of ourselves, the more we exercise the choice to turn our back on all our fears and all our things we think we can’t do without, the more blessed we are, the more free we are, the more whole we become, the more relieved and released we will be, because we will depend on the love of God for all, and the love of God is all.

We can share the love of God with others; others can share the love of God with us.  The blessing is in the giving, and in the receiving – the former if we share what we have; the latter if others share with us.

Everything around us tells us that this is nonsense; but Jesus tells us it is the way of the kingdom of God.

Imagine living your life never knowing the love of God, never knowing you are loved, never knowing how abundantly loved you are.  Of course you will be afraid.  But now, imagine being loved beyond all measure, beyond all understanding, beyond all imagining … and where is fear? It is gone.  It is gone altogether.

Our lives are in an uneasy balance between having and giving; and we are going to struggle with that as long as we live, moving from woes to blessings and back again.  All the advice I can offer is: choose love.  Because where love is, God is. 


[1] James Calvin Davis, “Theological Reflection on Jeremiah 17:5-10,” in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1 (Advent through Transfiguration) (Kindle Locations 11787-11789). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.


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