St Mary’s Wendover – Sunday 17th February 2019
Reading Jeremiah 17:5—10
5 This is what the Lord says:
‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.
7 ‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.’
9 The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
10 ‘I the Lord search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct,
according to what their deeds deserve.’
Reading I Corinthians 15:12—20
The resurrection of the dead
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
I am the way, the truth, and the life, says the Lord. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Gospel Luke 6:17—26
Blessings and woes
17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
In 325AD the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox.
In the Gregorian calendar, Easter falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This year, Easter is almost as late as it can be. It’s on 21 April. The last latest Easter was in 1943. It won’t happen again until 2038.
Today is the 3rd Sunday before Lent. Epiphany ended with Candlemas, but there are themes running through Epiphany and ordinary time which we can explore.
Today’s readings liken the faithful to elements of the natural world—in Jeremiah 17 and Psalm 1 we are compared to trees planted by streams of water.
I Corinthians 15 reassures us that this life is not the end, but is followed for the faithful by the resurrection of the dead.
Our gospel reading comes from the Sermon on the Plain—it also reassures, particularly the faithful lowly, of God’s provision—but the blessings are followed by woes, especially for the rich and well-fed who neglect the needs of others.
This was indeed the same passage set for this particular Sunday in 1995, when the vicar of St George’s Campden Hill in Kensington mounted the pulpit, his sermon about the woes of the rich and well provided for at the ready, and looked down, only to see in the front row several directors of Barings Bank—founded in 1762 but brought to its knees by rogue trader Nick Leeson. Too late to change his words, the vicar delivered his planned sermon regardless.
Most of us would probably admit to being well-fed. Most of us would confess to being rich by comparison to the world’s population in general. Many of us feel how wrong it is that the rich get richer and the poor poorer, but how do we—how should we— react to the messages of the Sermon on the Plain?
Many of you will recall Archbishop Makarios back in the 1970’s—the Greek Cypriot leader who became the first President of Cyprus. He survived four assassination attempts and a coup d’état. Makarios in Greek means “blessed”—it’s this word that is used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain.
Some people find it baffling that Jesus suggests the poor, hungry, and those who weep or are hated by others are specially blessed. Others are worried that those who are rich and well-fed are condemned by Jesus in the so-called woes. What is going on?
The first thing to be said is that although Jesus was surrounded by a large number of people, the blessings and woes are specifically addressed to his disciples and followers, and not a wider audience.
Secondly, Jesus doesn’t suggest that poverty and hunger are somehow desirable—but if the disciples suffer and are rejected by others, their reward is in heaven.
Thirdly, for those who are rich, well-fed and popular—they already have their reward in heaven—and their task now is to love and help others.
The remainder of chapter 6 is taken up with the rest of the Sermon on the Plain. Now Jesus’s words are addressed to the crowds:
27 ‘But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you.
Love your enemies, and don’t judge others. Consider the plank of wood in your own eye before removing the speck of sawdust in your brothers’. Judge other people by their fruit—a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Or look at other peoples’ deeds—for a house built on sand has no solid foundation and cannot survive life’s buffeting wind and rain.
Although Luke does not explicitly encourage us to make a choice—nevertheless it’s clear that Luke wants listeners to choose the way of blessing.
What to us as Christians seem to be woes, may yet prove to be blessings. Those who hunger and thirst in this world will be satisfied—perhaps through our giving and sharing as a means by which God provides for them—but also because their hunger for the coming of God’s Kingdom will include them in the world to come.
To be sure, condemnation awaits those who do not repent. But a longer view of Luke’s attitude towards the wealthy reveals a pastoral concern—Luke wants them to avoid condemnation by repenting and joining the movement towards the Kingdom, which means putting their material resources at the service of the community. Luke intends to shock people with wealth into repentance and freely sharing their money and possessions.
So next time you feel good because you have saved money or received a bonus, remember that is your comfort. Next time you feel happy and well-fed, remember that is your reward. Next time everyone speaks well of you, remember you have had your just dessert.
But next time you are in a position to love and help those who weep, those who are hungry, those who are hated by others, those who are abused, neglected and counted as of nothing, and those who have little enjoyment of the world’s good things, rejoice for great will be your reward in God’s kingdom! Amen