Third Sunday Before Lent – 17 February 2019
Sermon at St John the Baptist, Felixstowe
Text: He came down with them and stood on a level place (Luke 6.17f)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
The story is told of the golfer 🏌️♀️ who had had a really bad day on the links and was contemplating throwing her clubs into the water hazard that surrounded the green on the Par 5 13th hole. As she was about to pick them up an angel appeared to her and offered her the choice of ‘good news or bad news’. On the strength of her performance so far she said, ‘give me the good news, I really need some’. The angel told her that when she got to heaven she would be a scratch golfer on the Paradise course, always hit drives down the middle of the fairway, never three put and finally be able to use a 3 iron. ‘ Wow!’ She said, ‘if that’s how thing pan out I. An cope with any bad news at all, tell me what the other half of the news is?’ To which the angel replied, ‘You Tee-off time is 9am tomorrow morning’.
Today’s Reading, often called The Sermon on the Plain (a level place) to distinguish it from Matthew’s longer Sermon on the Mount, is when Jesus tells a ‘good news, bad news’ story.:
Good news if you are poor, hungry, crying, hated and bad news if you are rich, full, happy, or well thought of.
Unlike Matthew Luke shows us a Jesus who deals in absolutes. No prevarication, no blessed are the poor ‘in spirit’ or blessed are those who huger and thirst ‘for righteousness’.
Jesus in Luke’s telling of the story shoots straight from the hip and seems to divide the world into the ‘have nots’ who will become the ‘haves’ and those who are the ‘haves’ ending up desolate.
Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich!
I love Luke’s Gospel and how he always aims to tell the story of God’s love from the underside. Being the only Gentile writer in the Scriptures he has a special place for societies rejects, the women and the tax collectors, the Romans, the Samaritans and all kinds of prodigals but how does this message proclaim Good News to those on the receiving end of the woes?
After all, if it’s not Good News for the wealthy as well as for the poor it’s not Good News for anyone!
If God is to be God there can be no regard for status, wealth, or race. The poor must be (and are) as loved and valued by God as the wealthy. The outcast must be (and is) as loved and valued by God as the faithful, female as loved as male, low-born as much as monarch. Else God, who in Christ’s love on the Cross promised redemption, did not ‘love the world so much that he sent his son’ but only loved the bits other people don’t love.
For love to be love it must love all!
How did this apparent dichotomy between poor and rich, hungry and well-fed come to be?
In the very beginning inequality was not the desire of a generous God providing abundantly for all of creation. From the very beginning of the story of God’s love, and especially in the love poured out on the Children of Israel, we see a God who cannot do enough for the beloved.
In the wilderness wanderings manna, quail, and water are found as needed, but only for the day to remind them that God will be generous to them again tomorrow.
Entering the land of promise, those who were once exiles are now sufficiently blessed to be a blessing themselves to exiles and sojourners from nations other than their own.
But something goes wrong. The purpose of living in a land flowing with milk 🥛 and honey 🍯 was to keep the bounty of God flowing to those (especially the anawim – God’s poor ones) around them.
Somewhere along the way the generosity of God became the fiefdom of one group instead of a gift to everyone. Faithlessness in a faithful God, though some would claim that ‘charity begins at home’ and being prudent is good stewardship rather than selfishness, somehow became the product of God’s blessing.
It seems that the lesson of the desert years had not been learned. ‘I have led you forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out‘ (Deuteronomy 29v5) but once God’s children had stopped wandering they also stopped wondering at God’s provision and started to store up treasure for themselves.
This change is dramatically acted out in the story of Job where the author has God allowing Satan free reign to oppress and destroy the prosperous Job. Apparently even the devil believes God loves the wealthy more than the poor.
Job disproves the fiction that wealth is the consequence of faithfulness, despite the protestations of his ‘comforters’ and in the middle of disaster he pronounces words that grab my heart each time I hear this aria from ‘Messiah’
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19v25-27)
Down the ages we seem to have developed and continually reinvent a sort of Little Jack Horner Theology that justifies us eating and hoarding all the plums because God loves me more than you.
This reminds me of the sticker I first saw on a colleague’s care – which had her father’s registration number REV 007 – ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favourite. She meant it in good humour, some Christian are more earnest about God’s preference for them over others…
We see this in a church that has grown to accept the tele-evangelists demand for yet another private jet because Jesus wouldn’t be seen dead riding a donkey, and worked out in the peculiar ‘confess and possess’ aberration of faith which expects King’s Kids to travel First Class and at the same time refuses to help the less fortunate for fear it would damage their faith.
Many years ago Joan Baez put this arrogance into the words of her song Mercedes Benz
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
How myopic, how arrogant, how faithless? How dare we presume that if we are wealthy it is because we are faithful and if we are in poverty it is because we have sinned and somehow ‘deserve’ to be hungry.
Wealth has never been a measure of righteousness but on the other hand we need to remember that poverty is not next to godliness either.
The turning point is generosity. A generosity that imitates that of our loving Creator.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20v1-16) we see the landowner chastising those who had been faithful for longer with the words, ‘Are you envious because I am generous?‘ and it is here where we find a way to square the circle between the ‘Blesseds’ and the ‘Woes’ of the Sermon on the Plain.
In the end Matthew is correct. Blessed indeed are the physically poor, but blessed also are the poor in spirit. The physically hungry are beloved of God, but blessed also are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The Church of England in the Victorian era, in an Age of Enlightenment and greater human fellow-feeling, seemed to have caught this vision and in a rash of philanthropic acts laid the foundations for the welfare state of today. The names of the heroes are legend, Shaftesbury, Rowntree, Fry, Sumner, and their work persists to this day
This truth remains. if it’s not Good News for the wealthy as well as for the poor it’s not Good News for anyone.
It becomes Good News for the wealthy when the wealthy accept that their task is to be the providers of Good News to the poor, often under the simple form of provender. (See 1 Timothy 6v17-19)
Each of us, rich and poor alike, are left with only two things to do to ensure that God’s Good News is welcomed by everyone
We must believe that the God we worship is a generous God. Give up the faithlessness which causes the envy, greed, and strife which is the lot of those who do not know of the generosity of God
We must behave like the God we worship by being generous and open-handed ourselves. If our hands are empty then there is room for them to be filled. If our hands are full, then opening them will cause all that we have been grasping onto to be set free and used to fill the hands of the empty-handed.
Let us remember again the wise prayer of Teresa of Avila. Ours, and ours alone, are the hands, the feet, and the eyes which are able to tell a selfish world of our Generous God.
© Andrew Dotchin 2019