The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

What might the Spirit be saying to us in these readings?

Let’s start with Paul on Jesus’ resurrection from our second reading. “If Christ has not been raised…” What’s at issue here? Paul gives multiple answers to the question; here’s one of them: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (v. 32). If Christ has not been raised this [our presence in this Mass] requires a special kind of stupid. Another answer implicit in the text: If Christ has not been raised, then this world doesn’t matter. It’s disposable. But Christ raised—that’s God’s strongest statement that this world matters, that this world has a future.

The Gospel describes that future. Jesus’ words are surprising, by many accounts nonsense. No one wants to be poor, hungry, etc., and those who are poor, hungry, etc. are not obviously blessed or happy. So the verb tenses are important: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” This future is not simply a continuation of the present. And perhaps a better translation than ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ is ‘fortunate’: as in you’ve got the winning lottery ticket.

But wait! How can Jesus be pronouncing the poor etc. fortunate and the rich etc. unfortunate? How, for that matter, could his mother sing “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, / and lifted up the lowly; / he has filled the hungry with good things, / and sent the rich away empty” (Lk. 1:52-53)? Here we need to pull the camera back, say, to Psalm 82. It’s short; I’ll read it.

1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
 and fall like any prince.”
8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Within Holy Scripture this vision is an uncontested portrait of our world. Our world is usually unjust. While there are exceptions, the wicked, sinners, and scornful of Psalm 1 usually play an outsized role in making and interpreting our laws. The Golden Rule: those with the gold rule. So Jesus, with only some hyperbole, declares the poor, hungry, etc. fortunate and the rich, full, etc. unfortunate, because usually the poor are poor because of injustice and the rich are rich because of injustice.

Within Holy Scripture the benchmark for justice is the law of Moses, that law that this morning’s psalm celebrated. And there it’s clear that justice is both about how wealth is acquired and how wealth is stewarded. Acquired: only one set of weights and measures in the marketplace. Stewarded: “my” wealth is what I hold in trust for the community. Harvests are to be incomplete, so the poor have something to glean. In Deuteronomy all debts are cancelled every seven years. In Leviticus every fifty years there’s a Jubilee in which all return to their original tribal inheritance. Justice means nobody stays poor—or rich—indefinitely. [NB: this vision of justice aligns with the Native American critique of European society in the early dialogues, for which see Graeber & Wengrow The Dawn of Everything.]

Of course other factors influence where wealth or poverty cluster. Proverbs talks a lot about diligence and sloth, wise and foolish decisions. The larger environment plays a role, all those things over which we have no control: droughts, locusts, armies passing through. But when the Bible pulls back for the big picture (like Psalm 82, Mary’s Song, the Beatitudes), injustice is centerstage.

The poor, hungry, etc. of the Beatitudes are fortunate because God will respond to the prayer at Psalm 82’s end: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!”

How do we respond to these texts? Before moving to our other readings, three observations. First, between Psalm 82 and the Beatitudes, to the degree that I’m rich, full, etc. it’s sheer folly to assume that that’s simply the result of my virtue. On the personal level, that might be. On the corporate level, no way. So one of our confessions speaks of “the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” We live on stolen land, our consumer goods are cheap because we’re happy to get them from countries that discourage trade unions—or use slave labor. Should we wish to move from confession to amendment of life, there’s plenty to keep us occupied.

Second, the two verses immediately following today’s Gospel reading: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” So understandable as it might be, our response to the Beatitudes is not to take up the sword, to set ourselves up as judges.

Third, the poor, the hungry, etc. need to wait until Jesus’ return? Absolutely not. Jesus’ vision is that his church be the sphere in which his words are experienced to be true. Recall Jesus’ words to Peter: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age– houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions– and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk. 10:29-30). But from the start we’ve tended to downsize that vision, so Jesus’ brother James has to write:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (2:14-17)

[In other words, we’re used to hearing James’ words as an argument with Paul re the roles of faith and works. Perhaps equally at issue: whether the church incarnates Jesus’ communal vision, or is simply a group of folk each pursuing their individual salvation.] What’s the church for? (What’s faith for?) The Beatitudes can do wonders for our imagination.

Turning to Jeremiah and Psalm 1, we might hear that image of the tree planted by water as a strategy for life in the world as described both by Psalm 82 and by Jesus’ Beatitudes. It’s an unjust world, and God’s addressing that, but it’s not a quick fix. God’s playing a long game, and the image of the tree planted by water urges us to likewise play a long game. That can be hard. The trust on which Jeremiah focuses is the trust that God’s timetable is preferable to ours. (And, parenthetically, like Jeremiah we’re free to repeatedly bend God’s ear about that—as long as we’re willing to listen to how God might respond.)

Did you notice the chorus in today’s readings? Jeremiah: How fortunate/blessed/happy those who trust in the Lord. The Psalm: How fortunate/blessed/happy those who delight in the law of the Lord. Jesus: How fortunate/blessed/happy the poor. Why (bottom line)? God raised Christ from the dead. God has plenty of skin in the game, and, shifting the image, God regularly invites us to share His Body and Blood so that we play that game well.

“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.” Blessed are we as we continue to examine ourselves and make the choices that position us to together hear Jesus’ words as good news, to together experience Jesus’ words as good news.

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Our God is responding to that prayer today, and invites us to join in that response today. We’ll let Isaiah take us out:

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field—all us trees of the field—shall clap their hands. (55:12).

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