1 Corinthians 15:12-20
(Also Feast of Absalom Jones)
Collect: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Our Gospel this morning drops us into a story already underway. Jesus comes down from the mountain with the 12 apostles he’s just chosen and leads them, along with the rest of his disciples and “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (which were Syro-Phoenician communities, by the way—so we might infer that there were both Jews and Gentiles in the crowd), and he leads them all to “a level place.”
You’ve probably already noticed that this sounds like the story that we know as the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. But here Luke says, “a level place”—a place Jesus has come down to from the mountain. Why the difference? Anytime there’s a difference in accounts like this, it’s worth wondering about. Did one of them just make a mistake? Get the details wrong? Or could this be a problem of perspective?
Some have speculated that it was a plateau—you know, both mountain and level. When you go to the Holy Land and the spot where tradition says this took place, the keepers of the holy site go to great length to show how this could be a mount or a level place depending on where you’re standing.
To be honest, I’m not much interested in these speculations. I’m much more interested in what Luke the author, the creative writer, might be doing with this image.
From here Jesus launches into his famous and familiar beatitudes, but in Luke’s retelling it’s not just blessings that Jesus delivers, but woes as well. Jesus comforts, but also disrupts.
It could be easy to read this text and put it into a neat and tidy little binary box and think: starving? Good! Satisfied? Bad! We like it when things are black and white—when there is a clear right answer and a clear wrong answer.
But I don’t think that’s actually what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is always messing with our nice little neat and tidy boxes. So what might he be doing in this teaching?
First, let’s look at the word that is here translated as “blessed.” You’ll sometimes see it translated as “happy,” as it is our Psalm from this morning. There are two words for blessing in Hebrew: baruch—which is the word used in the reading from Jeremiah this morning and is the standard word for blessing—and asher, the word used in the Psalm, translated as “happy” and what gets transliterated to the greek makarios, the word used in the gospel, translated as blessed. Asher, in turn, is connected to the Hebrew verb ashar—to continue on the way. So one scholar I read suggested a better translation for the word blessed here might be “respectable” or worthy of respect. One who is on the right track.
In other words, this is a term that connotes a sense of being on the right path, heading the right direction. In contrast “woe” is a warning. You might think of it as “woah” spelled a different way. Wait! Head’s Up! Warning! Time to recalibrate!
I think we have here a call to pay attention to where our values lie and an invitation to realign ourselves with them.
In his Gospel, Luke is often inviting us to shift our perspective. He sets up all sort of contrasts in telling his story—for example, he begins the story of the birth of Jesus talking about the Emperor Augustus and the Roman empire . . . and then shifts to a small town in a far off corner of the empire and the birth of a child and the shepherds who came to visit him. He sets up his story with—see, you’re used to paying attention here (empire), but if that’s where your focus is, you’ll miss this. What are you focusing on? Where are you giving your attention?
And this is what I think is happening in our text this morning. Where are we focusing our energy? Are we committing our energies to being satisfied and comfortable, never letting the grief of the world touch us? Woe to us, if we are.
And lest we are tempted to think of these contrasts in still binary terms of good and bad—ever a risk for us humans—let’s go back to the text. These things Jesus is speaking to are conditional: “woe to you who are full now,” “blessed are you weep now” . . .
Remember earlier when I was wondering about why Luke chose “a level place” for this story to occur? This is what I think: I think he sets the story there because these things describe all of us at different times and places. None of us are exempt from veering from the right track, and there is never a point when we can’t realign ourselves with it. We are all in this messy journey together.
I was having a conversation last week about the tension between Original goodness—found in the creation story—and the church doctrine of original sin. And the question was posed, Which is it? Are we at base good? Or are we at base sinful and bad? And in true Anglican form, my response was, and is: both. We are both.
Friends, I believe we have to get beyond the good-bad binary. It is insidious and destructive. It is immobilizing us as a people. It keeps us from engaging those who think differently from us, it keeps us from listening, it keeps us from loving—both others and ourselves.
It also keeps us from learning and growing. When this binary takes hold we will go to extreme lengths to uphold our own sense of goodness, and we will feel threatened by anything that disrupts that—even if that disruption is in itself good. I think this is a particular challenge for us church folk who want more than anything to be seen as good. It keeps us expecting to be comforted and appeased in our church rather than challenged. It keeps us from being able to hear the correction of loved ones who we may have unintentionally harmed, because to do so would be to admit, even in a small way, that we were not somehow fully “good.” This is why as a white person when a person of color tells me about something I’ve done that has caused harm, my first instinct is to think, “Oh! But I didn’t mean it!” Rather than, “I’m sorry. I commit to doing better.” We can be so invested in being seen and understood as a good person that we lose the chance to be a better person.
If we were to rewrite these for our time, we might say, “Happy/blessed are those who can apologize when they’ve caused harm,” and “Woe to those who say, ‘but I didn’t mean it!’” “Blessed are those who can learn from their mistakes,” and “woe to those who cannot see their mistakes at all”
This is not to say we can’t call out evil or goodness when we see it. On the contrary, we have to do so if we want to continue on the path set before us as disciples of Jesus. But they do not exist within us in a mutually exclusive way. The presence of one does not negate the presence of the other. We all get off track. We all need at times things that can call us back to that path.
One of the ways that we practice this in the church is through the keeping of Lent. On Ash Wednesday we will be issued an invitation “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” For 40 days we will recall the stories of the Israelites in the wilderness and Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. We will embark upon our own journey, discerning as best we can where we have allowed our focus and attention to drift, and where we need to realign ourselves with the path of discipleship. We will remember that it’s not about being a good person or a bad person, but rather about being a fully human person who makes mistakes and who is called to an ever deepening relationship with Jesus. And we will walk with Jesus as he makes his way to a tree, a tree designed to be an instrument of terror but will become one of love, solidarity, and liberation.
And so I invite you over the next couple of weeks to consider how you’ll observe Lent this year. How will you engage in the work of self-examination? What might you read and study as you carve time to meditate on God’s holy word? We will have some options here at St. Paul’s for you to engage this time with Wednesday night classes, Stations of the Cross, and Morning Prayer. Consider what will help you enter into this season most fully.
Friends, the invitation from Jesus into a closer walk with God and neighbor is ever before us. Amen.