Reader: . audio begins with the scripture passage; sermon begins at: 1.45

Texts: Jeremiah 17: 5-8; Luke 6: 17-26

There was a time that I heard and spoke about this passage from Luke’s Gospel quite differently than I’m hearing it and am inclined to speak of it this morning. And maybe a truth lies somewhere between what I would have said before and what I’m saying today. Of course it’s also possible that the truth lies somewhere else altogether and I’m missing the mark on both counts! Which is strangely perhaps the best place for me to begin.

I will always remember Sr Patricia Shreenan, that feisty, beautiful, faithful Sister of St Ann … I’ll always remember her saying “a Christian is one who lives in constant readiness for a change of mind.” By that she’s not advocating that we cultivate a kind of hesitancy or fearfulness to take a stand. What she’s talking about is a posture of humility …a recognition that we might be wrong.

That hope that we might come to see differently, believe differently, and so be in the world differently … isn’t that so much of what Jesus is about through his teaching, his healing, his forgiving, his unlikely associations? “Repent!” we hear him say, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent, as in: change your mind, give your head a shake! Turn around … live into another reality.

The teaching of Jesus we come upon in this passage from Luke’s Gospel clearly paints a picture of a different reality!
Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude, revile you, defame you on account of me … rejoice in that day -- leap for joy! for surely your reward is great in heaven.

He’s giving our heads a shake alright!
And he’s not near finished.

Woe, he says, 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.

And still he’s not near finished! But that’s all we’re going to contend with right now. I dare you to go home and read your bible and see what comes after this!

Surely our inclination is to flip the lists …at least to resist the claim that being poor, hungry, anguished and despised could be connected in any way with blessing. And that full bellies and wealth, joy and affirmation could be thought of as woeful, somehow.

What’s he thinking? What’s Jesus seeing, let alone saying?

At a time I imagined Jesus dividing up the crowd along these lines … not physically corralling people into opposite camps … but by his language, you know where you stand and with whom you’re standing … a kind of separating of the sheep and the goats!
And ouch … Woe is me! … full, rich, reputable -- so far; laughing? -- well, these days it’s getting harder.

But something’s wrong with this picture … the separation I mean, that Jesus, whose way is to be with us in it all -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- Jesus, whose way it is to break down the dividing walls between us … something’s wrong with this picture of him defining and separating: “blessed are you” and “woe to you” in a way that sounds like he’s sealing our fate.

Here’s what I’m wondering now.
I’m noticing there’s this coupling of present and future tenses.
Blessed are you who are hungry NOW, for you WILL be filled.
Woe to you who are full NOW, for you WILL be hungry.

I see in Jesus a remarkable capacity to appreciate the human condition …and in particular the variableness, the changing nature of life.  How it is that one day, one instant we can be on top of the world, and the very next day or instant, crushed -- the sparkle, the life ripped right out of us.  Or how it is that one day we can be at the end of our rope, only to wake up to a possibility we couldn’t have imagined.  Shifts happen! Could that be part of what Jesus is affirming here?
Don’t get too settled … too attached to your current state of affairs because … shifts happen -- and that too!
To be alive is to undergo change. Not only that. To be alive in God’s world, where the arc of history finally bends toward justice is to undergo change in a particular direction.
That’s part of what I’m hearing through this give-your-head-a-shake passage.

While Jesus may not be bent on defining and dividing sheep and goats, surely he is plainly naming the realities of rich and poor; hunger and satiation; laughing and weeping; reviled and adored.  And we know about the growing divide between those realities … and that this is not how it’s meant to be.
“Woe to you who are rich” -- I can’t help but think we’re meant to hear some bite in that … at the very least to cause us to not be so sure, if somehow we’ve come to imagine that because of our riches, or food aplenty, or favourable standing, we’ve got it made … no grief can come to us. Woe!
The prophet Jeremiah says it this way: “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength … they shall be like a shrub in the desert; they shall live in an uninhabited salt land.”  Woe!

And then there’s this: there’s me in my richness, also knowing what it is to weep and mourn. So on the one hand I hear “woe to you who are rich” and on the other, “blessed are you who weep now.”  If Jesus isn’t into dividing sheep from goats, maybe we’re not meant to identify ourselves with one list or the other. Perhaps that’s another thing Jesus is appreciating here about the human condition -- the complexity of our being … how it is that we are people of mixed motives, divided loyalties, a jumble of desires and conflicting commitments. We are a people who both sin and are sinned against.

To this Padriag O’Tuma asks two beautiful questions: How do we understand ourselves gently while weighing up the consequences of our actions? What is a practice adequate enough to encompass both our potential for good and our predilection for greed? From there he goes on to say: “Sin has two rebellious daughters, we might say. Language and Hope. (two forces that push back, that don’t allow sin to hold sway). Language to confess the awful truth, and hope, that we might move, however slowly, towards change.” [1]

As for Language he speaks of telling the story of our lives within which is the truth about how it is we miss the mark of our best selves. It may be expressed in the form of a prayer … or confiding in another person. However the story of our life is confessed, Padraig claims, we come home more fully to ourselves, and I trust, to the mercy of God.

As for sin’s other “rebellious daughter” Hope, this is what he writes …

“ 'Hope is the thing with feathers,' Emily Dickinson wrote.
Recently a friend of mine was talking about visiting a relative in prison. ‘What do I do?’ my friend said. ‘I want to help him hope, but I don’t want him to break his heart hoping for things that’ll never come true.’

The conversation got me wondering -- what is the purpose of hope?

I understand that hope can break you. To hope for something that might never come true may be a difficult thing.

I was taught a class on the Prophets by a Jewish scholar and during the class, under her guidance, my imagination was captured by some words from the book of Isaiah. I knew the verses, because my parents’ prayer group used to sing a jousty song set to it’s lyrics:
You shall go out with joy, the song said.
And be led forth with peace.
The mountains and the hills will break forth before you, the
song said.
There’ll be shouts of joy
And all the trees of the fields will clap their hands.
the song said.
It’s such an uplifting rousing chorus of independence, festival, vindication and celebration.

It’s debated when the prophet wrote these words.

One suggestion is that the prophet wrote these words while the people were in exile in Babylon. They’d been marched there from their beloved city, Jerusalem. They were in exile now, learning a different language, under the control of a foreign king in a cruel repetition of previous slavery. And, in the hope of return, their prophet wrote this song. It’s an imagination of return, a gladness so great even the mountains, the hills, and the trees would break forth with joy. It didn’t happen. What did happen was that Cyrus, a Persian king, conquered Babylon and the Jewish people were sent back to their own city, but not with shouts of joy, just with a different power over them.

So was their song a waste? Adam Phillips says that hope is only ever disproven in retrospect, so that to dash hope in the moment of hoping is to have allowed a catastrophe that hasn’t yet happened to already have effect. So, no, hope is not a waste. Hope is a song sung when everything else says you shouldn’t be singing. Hope is joy. Hope is a testimony that says ‘even if it doesn’t come true, I will live like it might’. Hope is what helps us survive.” [2]

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, exclude you, revile you, defame you on account of me. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is in heaven.
What if it’s true? What if it’s true?

And 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.
What if it’s true? What if it’s true?

The call to change your mind is directed towards the privileged and marginalized, both.
What if it’s true?

 [1] Padraig O’Tuma, In the Shelter - finding a home in the world, London: Hodder and Stroughton Ltd, 2015; p. 175.

[2] Padraig O’Tuma, In the Shelter - finding a home in the world, London: Hodder and Stroughton Ltd, 2015; pp. 177-8.