February 17, 2019 – Sermon

Epiphany 6   February 17, 2019   (Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20) Luke 6:17-26    On the Plain

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I used to like today’s gospel reading better than I do now. Back when I was in seminary and had very little money and few possessions and was poor… the kingdom of God was mine. I was blessed.

I’m still blessed, but – woe to me now, I sometimes think. I don’t think I’m rich, but I’m no longer poor. Between my wife’s good cooking and my good appetite I’m never hungry long. I laugh more than I cry. So I hope Jesus isn’t meaning everything he says here today literally. If he is… I’m in trouble.

Fortunately, I don’t think Jesus means everything he says literally. He’s always serious but not always literal… And I believe it helps to notice similarities between this Sermon on the Plain – so called because Jesus is preaching from a level place – and the book of Deuteronomy– last of the five books of the Torah/Law of Moses – which is one long sermon by Moses delivered on the plain of Moab, next-door neighbor country to Israel – just before Israel enters the promised land. Near the end of Deuteronomy (28) Moses gives half of Israel’s twelve tribes instructions to shout four blessings that will come to Israel if we obey God. The other tribes shout out four woes that will come upon Israel if we disobey God. Moses gives Israel the words of blessing and woes that he’s downloading from God –  and makes Israel chant the words back to each other. Like a parent teaching children household rules. Do not accept candy from strangers. Do not lie, cheat, steal or worship other gods. Do love God always and share with those in need.

Here in Luke’s gospel Jesus stands on the Plain with a great crowd of disciples and a multitude of people from all over… and…

Jesus adapts Deuteronomy’s blessings and curses framework, preaching four blessings, and four woes much like in Deuteronomy. But Jesus is not a rigid biblical literalist. The blessings and woes Jesus proclaims is a heads-up warning – the kingdom of God will turn this world upside down and downside up. But the kingdom is not a law written in stone.

Nor is Jesus in any sense celebrating brutal absolute poverty. He isn’t saying there is anything good about people starving or suffering. Nor is Jesus saying we should be weeping and fasting every day.

What Jesus is condemning in this Sermon on the Plain – is the idea that happiness comes from material wealth and poverty is punishment from God.

Most of all, Jesus is proclaiming reversal of the world order in the coming of God’s kingdom. Building on the theme introduced by his mother in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel – where Mary sings that God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, 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

A theme Jesus amplifies in his first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4) saying The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor

And this theme of sweeping reversals of fortune and deconstruction of this world’s values is restated throughout the gospel… With strong warnings against trusting in worldly wealth heard again in chapters 12, 14, 16, 18… And the only rich person praised in Luke will be Zacchaeus the tax collector (in Luke 19) who gives half his wealth to the poor and pledges to repay four times over anyone he’s robbed or cheated.

Jesus goes all-in – warning against the perils of wealth and power, and lifting up the poor and lowly. A counter-cultural message as timely today as ever. One recent survey says only 28% of Americans with net worth between one and five million dollars think they are rich. (The other 72% don’t think being a millionaire is enough to make them rich.) The same survey indicates 40% of those with net worth of more than $5 million don’t think they are rich. The rich and powerful rely on denial as a way of avoiding thinking about what Jesus says… So Jesus sometimes has to raise his voice to be heard. And for sure…

Wealth and poverty are about power and the lack thereof as much as money. Worldly power runs on money. Lack of money means lack of power. Lack of money and power perpetuates political and economic relationships that maintain poverty and powerlessness.

The kingdom of God will reverse this. The kingdom is present already among us, since Jesus has come. But the empires of this world still fight against God’s kingdom. So – followers of Jesus still need to expect opposition and resistance – as we strive to live according to kingdom ways…

Yet God’s kingdom, however weak and vulnerable it may often appear… is still stronger by far than all the world…

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Speaking of weak and vulnerable… but happy and blessed… Our family is just back from almost a month in the Philippines, where Reah was born and grew up.  Driving almost anywhere we saw block-after-block of run-down buildings, people living in fragile-looking huts, half-open to the elements. People struggling to make ends meet. Farm workers, construction workers, motorcycle-tricycle drivers, jeepney mini-bus drivers all living on average wages of about $200 a month.

Yet on my evening walks people living in nearby squatter communities would greet me cordially. Some of their children asked my sister-in-law as we walked by “who is he?” She told them I was a brother-in-law and a pastor…Every time after that then I walked by some of those children would call my name, run over, take my hand and put it on their forehead, in the standard sign of respect children give to elders. (Which made me feel a little better about having yet another birthday while we were there…)

On many streets you see little micro-mom-and-pop grocery stores, one next to another, next-to-yet-another, block-after-block-after-block. We wondered how can they make a living with so much competition on all sides? Walking by a lakeshore we saw people harvesting and bundling wild greens to sell in the market, where they’d receive just a few pesos for their labor… Often we’d see vendors selling taho – a sugary flavored soy drink – for 20 pesos, about 40 cents, on the sidewalks… Other vendors would stand in the middle of city streets, even after midnight, selling cigarettes, newspapers, snack foods, etc, as traffic goes speeding by in both directions… Many work long days and nights to feed their families. Yet I’ve seen so many people smiling and looking cheerful.

Can this be a sign of the kingdom’s presence? (I’m sure it is… but…)

Getting around on the roads in this neck of God’s kingdom can sure take a bit of getting used to. Those double-solid-lines down the middle of the street? Those are  optional suggestions. Our first few days out and about in traffic had me praying aloud without ceasing, as our drivers crossed the center line anytime slower moving traffic ahead slowed down…Weaving back into place just in time to avoid collision with oncoming drivers. Reminding me of Boston drivers – except drivers in the Philippines seem to go a little slower, a little smoother… and mostly keep smiling. (Frequent honks are just a polite way to let you know… I’m passing on your left… or on your right…) I soon learned it’s best to keep my eyes looking to the side of the road and avoid looking straight ahead… Looking always to Jesus…

And… One can’t help noticing Jesus almost everywhere in the Philippines. Store-front churches pop up all along the main streets… His picture is vividly painted on many a jeepney. Often next to a picture of his mother. Fancy paint jobs on these wildly colorful jeepney buses often proclaim gospel messages – Jesus is Lord –  God is King

We made it to five churches services over the course of four Sundays, plus a midweek chapel worship at a Methodist college for deaconesses, and a house-warming worship service. The smaller church we attended, Binangonan United Methodist, began as a Sunday School extension class, taught by Reah, her sister Shallum, and others from the Methodist Youth Fellowship of the larger church we attended, when Reah and her sister were still in Jr High and High School.

Later an adult bible study was added by request of parents of Sunday School students. Then Binangonan became a mission church, planted by Angono UMC. Reah’s grandmother, a deaconess, played organ. On the Sundays we worshiped there we saw about eighty worshipers each time – not counting the little birds that flew in and out the open-air siding. (As in Psalm 84 – even the sparrow finds a home, the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young at your altars, O Lord of hosts…)

About half the congregation were children, youth, young adults… The service began about 9 with a break at 10 for half an hour of all-ages bible study break-out groups – then back together for sermon, prayers, a second offering (after a first mission offering) and more singing… Two and a half to three hours… No one in a hurry.

The larger church we attended, Angono UMC (where Reah’s father served as pastor for a year when she was about ten years old) has a 7 am Praise Worship Service, a 10 am service that goes about two hours, and a 630 Evening Service. Angono UMC which began 60 years ago as a mission church founded by a nearby larger church, now averages more than 400 in worship, again with many children, youth and young adults. Now it sponsors three mission churches, each with it’s own pastor. Gospel seeds planted in faith by teenagers and elderly deaconesses have grown, like the proverbial mustard seed Jesus speaks of…

The Methodist church in the Philippines has most of the same theological and cultural debates we have, but somehow they are flourishing in ways few churches are in the US. In spite of many daily sacrifices, and for most people, lack of much money –  So many are visibly joyful, friendly, welcoming and generous with time – giving countless hours to the church… Yet another sign – Jesus Christ indeed is Lord, and his kingdom is present among us.

Yet another reminder – Jesus paints his gospel message with a wide spectrum of color, sound, and imagery – a virtual painter’s pallet of metaphor and parable for the describing of the indescribable kingdom of God. Even the most woeful woes Jesus pronounces are designed to provoke repentance into new life. Here on the wide plains of the kingdom of God – Jesus stands with us – Son of Man, Son of God, King of heaven – standing on level ground – here with us…

Welcoming us into his upside-down downside-up kingdom of God’s unbounded grace. Inviting us to invite others… Thanks be to God. Amen.