Jesus came down with the twelve apostles 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. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
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.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and 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.”
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“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.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Last weekend, David and I experienced something incredible, thanks to the relentless generosity of my sister. We took a hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley in Northern California at sunrise. This experience was nothing less than awe – some. Breathtaking. As we began our descent into a clearing within the grounds of a vineyard and began to float closer and closer to the ground, we passed over a block of vines that were being tended to by workers. As I watched them do their vinocultural work, I noticed something that struck me to the core. Here I was, living what was my very best life at that exact moment, a life with not a care in the world it seemed, while right below the hot air balloon’s basket, were a group of about a dozen migrant farm workers, laboring on a chilly winter morning to tend to vines which would grow the grapes this vineyard would use to make their fancy wine – likely costing much more money than these workers would ever expect to have as disposable income in their lifetimes. We were so close to the ground at this point that I felt like they were looking right at my face as we passed over their heads. I was struck by the sheer inequality of the moment – I had not worked for this opportunity to fly high above the ground in a hot air balloon, but rather it had been gifted to me by the generosity and love of someone. The gift came with no strings attached at all, a gift full of grace and love alone. This gift lifted me high above the people who were toiling on the ground below, and that image hit me in my very privileged gut – an image I have yet to shake from my memory of that very special day.
After our trip, I began to read todays Gospel to prepare for this sermon. Blessed are you who…
Are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed because of Christ
And woe to you who…
Are spoken of highly
We’ve heard some of these words before – or something pretty similar – found in the gospel of Matthew in the more famous Sermon on the Mount. Today’s gospel is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. The Plain – a level place where all who heard Jesus teach were standing as equals – no advantages or disadvantages on being able to see or hear the words Jesus taught. While the Sermon on the Mount focuses only on the “blessed are they who”, Luke’s version of this event describes the flip side – for there is often a flip side to who we are and what our lives are really like in their totality.
Blessings…boy to we Christians love this word! We are blessed when things go well for us – a new job, a renewed friendship, even stumbling across a sale on a great pair of shoes gets labeled as a blessing! We thank God for blessing us with another year on our birthdays and God certainly blesses us when we find a $20 bill in our jacket pocket that we haven’t checked since the last cold snap. So does that mean that we are doing something right? Living our best lives at that very moment? And if that is true, then isn’t the opposite also true? When we don’t find ourselves so “blessed” – are we doing something wrong and somehow deserve our woes?
That’s just not how God works – handing out random blessings and woes to each person on the planet sounds like some kind of god that I’m not interested in having a relationship with. In fact, that seems rather cruel and without any sort of God-like intention at all. This passage from our Gospel reading today speaks nothing of what God supposedly hands out to us in the way of blessings and woes, but rather speaks about our current lived condition. Sometimes life is easier and sometimes life is harder. And while some things are completely outside of our control, there are many ways that we use our privilege to keep our privilege for ourselves, even at the expense of others.
Let me be very clear….God does not say to give up your money, or your food, or to stop laughing and become a person who is ridiculed by others. Whew! Instead we are called to use our access to these points of privilege to reach out to those to whom Jesus DESIRES and some may say even prefers – those who live at the margins of our very own communities. The blessings that Jesus names are also for those whose lives are not privileged by birthright, who have been victimized by the very structures from which many of you, and certainly I benefit. These are not intended to be exclusionary to those who are privileged, but rather leveraged by the very people who have them and take them for granted. To stand with those in the margins requires something of us – and it’s something that is easy to tweet about or discuss over dinner – but it’s quite another when it gets right down to it. It requires us to give up some of our power with the intention of giving it to others.
One of the things I love the most about being a part of this faith community here at the Cathedral is the breadth of diversity found in these pews. People from all stations of life made a decision today to come to this sacred place to worship God together in community. What you are wearing, where you slept last night, and how much money you will place in the offering plate is of no consequence to being able to gather together. This is not a place where attaining social status equals a reward of a spot at the altar rail in a few minutes, when we offer ourselves humbly to God and partake of Communion. Instead, all are welcome. This is a place where children make valentine cards to share with the residents at Peterborough Apartments and tie die t-shirts to sell as we approach the Pride celebration. This is a place where dozens of parishioners give of their time to support the students and staff at Campbell Park Elementary School. This is a place that actively looks for ways to support the community and people who have been sidelined and oppressed by systemic racism, classism, and sexism. These very things that Jesus is preaching about on this level place in todays Gospel – is meant to remind us that we are joining with his followers and the rest of the people who were clamoring to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. And friends, we have so much more to do to extend the radical love of Jesus Christ into our communities. This is the REAL emergency that affects us all.
Blessings are not zero sum – there are enough for everyone as long as we don’t see them as something we deserve and must hold on to at all cost – they are ours through God’s grace and often, a whole lot of sheer luck. And holding tight to our privilege, does absolutely nothing to honor the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain – Jesus expects his followers to actively participate in dismantling structures of oppression which bar others from experiencing what we so easily take for granted. Frankly, sitting back and enjoying our blessings without being compelled to want the same for others is not at all who we are called to be as Christ’s followers. To be clear, this is the REAL emergency that affects us all and should call us to action.
You may have seen this picture illustration before. Three kids are standing on crates in front of a privacy fence in 2 side by side scenarios. In the first panel, the three kids are each standing on their own identical crates behind at tall fence, attempting to watch a baseball game being played on the other side. These three kids range in height from pretty tall to super short. The crates are the exact same shape and size, and the perfect size for the tallest child to see over the fence and have a perfect view of the game with room to spare. The next tallest kid wouldn’t be able to see a thing without standing on the crate – their eyes just clear the very top of the fence line so they can see all the action. The third child – the shortest one, stands as tall as he can on his tippy toes, craning his neck to see over the fence, but he is still too short to be able to see a thing.
In the second panel, all three kids are pictures watching the game and cheering along with the action. But in this panel, the crates have been redistributed. The tallest kid is now standing on the ground – he still has a great view of the game as his head clears the top of the fence line without any help from a crate. His crate is now stacked on top of the smallest boy’s crate to give him the height he needs to be able to see over the fence. This small child’s body language is completely different from the first image, where his shoulders were slumped over in apparent disappointment. In the second scenario, his arms are thrown in the air in excitement as he watches the game, just like the other two kids.
Each child uses the crate for the same goal – to be able to see over the fence. With access to the exact same resources, they have radically different levels of success. It’s not until the tallest one shares his crate with the smallest child that the kids finally have equal access to the fun on the other side of the fence.
Jesus names our blessings and our woes, and it turns out we get some of each in our lives. And in our blessings, God sees us and calls us to remember the Good News is for everyone. Don’t let the blessings of your life lead you to believe there will be no woes, and don’t let the woes stop you from finding your blessings. Instead, spend some time considering your blessings and how you can turn them into blessings for others. When we believe we ALL are created in God’s image, we cannot rest until we have done all in our power to see everyone’s humanity. As Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the earliest liberation theologians has said, when we use our blessings to reach out to others, “We opt to be with Jesus, to serve Jesus, to accompany Jesus among the world’s poor in the nonviolent struggle for justice.”
Our daughter was baptized when she was nearing 3 months old, and because we waited “so long” (according to my mother), we had to purchase a larger christening gown instead of using the tiny family gown that my mother made when I was born, and was also worn by both of my younger sisters at their baptism. For my mom, the dress we three sisters wore was an important memory of a milestone in each of our lives, but even more so, it served as a reminder of our union within the body of Christ through baptism, a community that has existed since the occasion of the baptism of Christ by John that we heard proclaimed in our Gospel reading today.
So from my earliest memories, God and by extension, the church was the center of our family story. We were there every time the doors opened and you cannot name one committee or guild position in the church that didn’t have at least one of our family members serving on it. You can even drive down to Redeemer in Sarasota and find the kneelers that my mother embroidered before we moved away when I was in the 3rd grade and she left her position as the church secretary. One of my favorite memories came a few years later when our church enlisted every available person to participate in a tableau depicting scenes from the stations of the cross for Palm Sunday, right on the front lawn of St. Peter’s in Fernandina Beach on the busiest street in town. We were frozen in position and couldn’t move, sneeze, or talk, and strangers walked by watching – and I was so very sure that I was playing a critical role in the telling of the story of Jesus that day. These memories serve as the foundation of my feeling of being called by God.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. Today we encounter a scene where Christ himself is being baptized by John – something that a young girl like me wondered about each and every time we heard this section of the text read in church. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Why did God need to be baptized if Jesus was God? My young self didn’t have the courage to ask that question as a child, but my grown woman self most surely did. Today’s gospel syncs closely with our gospel reading from the third Sunday of Advent in that John is again reminding folks that he is not the Messiah and that the Messiah will baptize with the spirit. Jesus is baptized, but not for the same reasons that we are baptized – he is baptized as a symbol of the beginning of his public ministry. The words that close our gospel reading today are public words of affirmation of Jesus – who he is and what he was incarnate to do for the world.
When we think about our own baptisms, or those baptisms we have witnessed over the years, we find ourselves drawn back into the words spoken in the liturgy in which we recommit ourselves to our own baptismal covenant. We, like Jesus, also hear words of affirmation in our baptism. We are received into the household of God, and directed to confess our faith in Christ as we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are changed as we are recognized as members of Christ’s body. This is more than just getting a little wet for Jesus on a particular day – this is a public affirmation of whose we are and that we are called into the world to share Christ’s love as we ourselves are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
But let’s be real – the Holy Spirit is not just a gentle nudge on our lives. The Holy Spirit takes us places that we might never imagine for ourselves. I spent 25 years as a teacher and school principal. I loved lay ministry and found my way into all kinds of roles within the church and in service in my community. After losing my mom to a brief but intense illness in 2012, I found myself being led by the Spirit in ways I could never have imagined. I began seeking new theological experiences, experimenting with a writing a blog on the weekly lectionary, and started feeling as if my career in education was no longer filling my bucket in the ways it had for all those many years. I was seeking….searching for the ways that God was calling me anew, and the voice of God took hold in ways I had not experienced before. I was unsettled. Unnerved. Unsure of things with which I had previously been quite sure. God was calling me into a new direction, and it was far from a gentle and soothing experience. Leaving behind my career to go through the discernment process which led me to seminary and the priesthood is not something I had ever imagined God would call me into, and I sometimes would find my sweet husband (who wasn’t experiencing a call of any sort), looking at me intently as if trying to figure out who I was after being with me for nearly a quarter of a century at that point. The path was not straight. The way was not clear. The journey was one of the hardest things I have done. And here I am – barely on the other side of my ordination, listening and praying for discernment in where God is calling me next.
I didn’t make my own decision about my baptism as an infant, and maybe that is true for you as well. But we each have the opportunity to make decisions today about how we might discern God is calling us into ministry in the church. It could be that we are meant to serve others through the activities of our upcoming day of service on MLK day. It might be that there is opportunity for you in a new lay ministry here at the Cathedral that is bubbling up inside, waiting for you to pray and discuss with a member of the clergy. It may be as simple as deciding to join the Good Book Club of the Episcopal Church as we read Paul’s letter to the Romans between now and Ash Wednesday to spend time with Scripture. Or perhaps you are still discerning a way to draw closer to God and share the love of Christ with someone.
I’m sure of this – God is calling each and every one of us into relationship and covenant. Stepping out in faith and living out our baptismal vows is what we are called to do, even when we are not sure exactly what that means today. I’ll leave you with one of my longtime favorite prayers from Thomas Merton, that may help you along the way:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
There are so many things to love about being a parent. Our own beloved Youth Minister, Mike Peterson and his wife Mary Bess, are spending their first Sunday as parents today, and I am confident they are staring into baby Theo’s sweet angelic face right this very minute, in awe of how much they love him already. That is, unless they are “resting their eyes” and catching a few moments of silence as Theo sleeps away much of the daylight hours, saving up his energy for the “after-midnight show” he is sure to put on for his parents tonight. Those first days are so full of love that in hindsight, we can almost forget the exhaustion and the piles of laundry and missed meals, once that phase of parenting moves on to the next. Many new parents often remark that they didn’t know how much they could love another person until they first laid eyes on their children. These times of utter adoration are surely intentional in God’s plan for creation, because they are often all we have to sustain ourselves as our children grow up to push the boundaries, working hard to separate themselves from identifying as only our children – focusing instead on becoming individual people with lives all their own. As I reflect on this as an empty-nester parent, I can maybe….just maybe….get a glimpse into the tremendous and often complicated kind of love God must feel for us as God’s own creation.
The lectionary can be a rough place for both the preacher and the laity. Sometimes, it delivers passages of scripture that are hard to hear, challenging to understand, and difficult to find meaning within. And sometimes, the lectionary has an almost magical quality, starting in some of our earliest texts and following a winding and connected path that gets us to the message of the Good News of Christ. Today we have a bit of both with which to contend. In today’s lectionary readings, we trace a progression which leads us to Jesus as the anointed one. We start out in the Hebrew scriptures with a flowery description of a seemingly perfect expression of love, then move into the portion of the psalter from Psalm 45. In this psalm, one of the collection of so-called Royal Psalms, God is showing an abundance of radical love in the anointing of his servant through an outpouring of kinship with God our true king. In James, we hear of Christ’s birth as the “word of truth,” bringing us all the way to the divinity of Christ found in the gospel of Mark. This culmination of the Godship of Jesus is at the heart of this evangelist’s interpretation of who Jesus is for God’s people.
Jesus is having none of the foolishness of the Pharisees. In reading and studying this gospel selection, I felt a little like an outsider stepping into someone’s family drama—midstream. The Pharisees are desperate to hang on to their authority, and they do that the only way they know how – they throw down the rule of law to Jesus and his disciples. For reasons that no longer exist in our modern world, which is filled with antibacterial soap, refrigeration, and a plethora of chemical additives which work to keep us from getting sick from our food, these religious purity laws were intended in part to keep folks free from illness. And Jesus responds to their authority with an authority that can only come from God….and he challenges them the way all outdated and unnecessary laws that burden our society, especially burdening those in the margins, should be challenged. He turns their purity codes LITERALLY INSIDE OUT.
For it is our insides – our thoughts, words, and deeds, which are of concern to Jesus, and he has no problem naming a few handfuls of examples of ways we live out our own selfish desires. Ways that we live out our desires that serve to separate us from God – ways that are solely, our OWN doing. Like the Pharisees, we worry about how something “looks” from the outside….perhaps spending more of our energy and chatter on our judgment of how things may appear. We lament the state of the world today (thinking and saying things like…kids these days, or bemoaning the behavior of government officials, or arguing about whether taking a knee is appropriate during the national anthem)….we take dangerous risks when we focus on someone else’s outsides instead of our very own and often quite flawed insides.
“You must understand this, my beloved; let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” These words from our Epistle reading today from the book of James exhort us to action, to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Peter Rhea Jones, a Baptist pastor and seminary professor remarks that we as Christians would do well to eschew the “deception of passive faith,” as we cast our eyes toward how OTHERS should be behaving rather than standing and carefully examining our OWN selves in the reflection in the mirror. Who are we….really? Who are we reflecting in our life and work? To whom do we belong? And if we KNOW whose we are, then what are we called to do and who are we called to become?
As doers of the word, we will never be without fault. We are still human, still with tendencies toward selfish actions and judgments. But what would it look like if we were all committed to REALLY being DOERS OF THE WORD. Jesus challenges the religious beliefs of the day with an attempt to redirect back to God those who are within earshot of his words. Back to God’s radical love of God’s people. Back to the scriptures they knew so well; reminding them, and by extension reminding US that we are to honor God with our hearts as well as our lips. And honoring God, bringing ourselves back into the membership of the communion of saints is to RE-MEMBER that we must accept God’s love AND send out God’s love to all. While we are individuals with our own talents, callings, and gifts, we are united together in community with God and sent forth to spread love with our words and our actions. We must worry less about what is on the outside of those we meet and look at them in love, the way that God most surely sees us with God’s own eyes.
While Theo Peterson is just starting on life’s journey this week, our country carved out some significant time this same week to celebrate the lives of two very different, yet iconic figures in our society in Aretha Franklin and John McCain. Neither was perfect. Neither claimed to be. But both were remembered as people who loved. They were people of action, albeit in very different ways. They were doers: Aretha using her position in tangible ways during the Civil Rights Movement; McCain using his platform to hold others accountable for truth. They were imperfect in life but created by God and surely welcomed at the feet of Jesus when their earthly life was finished. They were so loved by God and as evidenced by the ways they have been honored in death, they loved and led others in ways that brought about change in their respective worlds.
We are created by God. Loved by God. Anointed by God. Bestowed with gifts and talents from God. Empowered by the gift of Christ to go forth and spread love into the world. We are doers of the Word. How will you be remembered? How will the church of God be known in the world today? We know to whom we belong, and starting within our own selves, we can and we must work to join with Christ as we are called to do. Called to join with Christ to bring about Christ’s kingdom. Lord, what will you have me do?