6th Sunday after Epiphany

February 11, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 17:5-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 1
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Reading 4: 
Luke 6:17-26

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Today’s readings focus on the theme of blessedness. To be blessed is to be fulfilled, whole, and joyful in body, mind, and spirit. From blessedness comes true happiness. Accordingly, blessedness is identified with the Hebraic image of shalom, the fullness of all things and each individual. Yet, these scriptures must be interpreted with caution. Far too often, the juxtaposition of blessings and curses have been used in abusive ways toward those who are less fortunate – the chronically ill, persons with disabilities, the divorced and those going through difficult marital passages, persons with AIDS and other life threatening illnesses, and the oppressed and impoverished.

The sensitive and justice-seeking preacher must remember that spiritual counsel, like medicine, is governed by the principle, "first, do no harm." Linear readings of these scriptures lead to a strict identification of righteousness and well-being and sin and punishment. The more ecological and multifactorial approach of process-relational thinking preserves personal responsibility without blaming the victim. We are not impotent in the shaping of our lives (a lifetime of smoking may issue in lung cancer and a sole focus on material success may lead to spiritual malnutrition and family alienation), but we are also not omnipotent (workaholics sometimes have successful marriages and the affection of their children. ). Many factors contribute to health and illness and success and poverty. As pastors, we are called to encourage both individual and corporate life styles of wholeness, rather than simply blaming persons for their misfortunes. Read in the light of a multifactorial understanding of reality, these passages encourage spiritual and ethical responsibility as well as graceful and supportive attitudes toward persons in physical, spiritual, or relational crisis.

Jeremiah describes the two paths – life and death – that stand before humankind. "Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord" – such persons will wither and die spiritually. Jeremiah’s words anticipate Jesus’ image of the vines and branches. Connectedness with God brings wholeness, while alienation from God eventuates in spiritual dis-ease.

On the other hand, "blessed are those who trust in God." Their lives are constantly replenished by living waters, even in the most challenging situations. One of my parishioners has lived with a serious health crisis for many years. Eventually, her disease will kill her. Although she will never be cured, she has a healing spirit. Whenever I visit her, I come away healed and inspired by her attitude of faithful trust in God.

Trust is grounded in our sense of interdependence with God and the wider world. When I trust my wife Kate or a good friend, I experience the creative dependence that allows me to receive their love and nurture. Trusting God involves the recognition that God is our ultimate source of well-being and happiness. While we do not scorn friends, employment, and the natural world, trust in God enables us to see these other loves in perspective and enables us to love the other with the love that flows from God. A process-relational world view calls us to love the Creator by loving the creatures as God’s own beloved children. In that divine reciprocity, we are blessed.

I Corinthians 15:12-20
Once again, the Epistle explores the theme of resurrection. While this passage may seem out of place in light of the other readings, the heart of this reading is also blessedness – the blessings that come from our confidence in Christ’s victory over death and our hope for everlasting companionship in God’s realm of shalom.

The reality of the resurrection is not a footnote to Christian faith. The universality of divine transformation is at the heart of reality. The resurrection of Christ is often our only image of hope amid the realities of dying and death – spiritually, relationally, physically, and socially. Although we cannot fully articulate the reality of the resurrection, it is clear that Paul affirms resurrection as an "objective" event received "subjectively" by each follower of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection is the paradigm and ultimate revelation of God’s moment by moment resurrection of all things, including our own mortal lives. Christ is alive! His resurrection empowers us to claim new life amid our own experiences of dying and death.

The preacher may invite his or her listeners to experience the reality of resurrection in their own lives by asking them to consider: what has died in their lives and what needs to reborn? This question might be facilitated by a time a silent reflection or a guided meditation following the sermon. From a pastoral perspective, the preacher must be aware of the grief that many of us experience over lost possibilities and broken dreams. He or she must remind the congregation that abundant life is God’s plan for each person. In spirit of Disciple of Christ historian Ronald Osborn, the pastor must always include in every sermon a world of comfort and consolation for those who grieve and are heavily burdened by the trials of life.

Psalm 1
While the Psalmist may have understood his words in light of the rewards-punishments theology of Leviticus, we are obligated to take another path. Indeed, the sermon could be one long critique of the linear theological thinking, whose side-effect is, on the hand, the spiritual smugness of those who succeed, and, on the other hand, the despair of those who fail. Faith moves mountains, but it does not always cure every disease. Healing is, as Paul proclaims, the recognition of God’s grace within situations that are out of our control. The church should be a place of grace, where brokenness is an invitation to support and healing, not judgment and punishment.

Still, Psalm 1 has a healing word for us. Those who delight in the law of the Lord, who align themselves with God’s revelation in their own lives, in the social and political realm, in scripture, and in nature, will experience a well-spring of inspiration, well-being, and connectedness, regardless of their external situation. In order to avoid abusive theology, we must remember that this well-spring is always experienced concretely. For those of us with depression, social phobias, or panic disorders, the well-spring may be evidenced in the growing sense of confidence that even these disorders cannot separate us from God’s love. For those living with marital tensions, these words give hope that their personal integrity will bring healing to themselves even if the relationship remains strained. In a world in which we compare ourselves to our neighbors, it is important to remember that God’s call is for us to be uniquely ourselves, growing in terms of our own particular limits and possibilities.

Luke 6:17-26
In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Jesus’ blessings and woes find their context in Jesus’ healing ministry. Power was with Jesus to heal them of all their diseases, even those which alienated them from society and condemned them to social impurity. The blessings and threats are part of a larger perspective in which Jesus embodies God’s universal aim at wholeness and blessedness.

Luke’s beatitudes have an embodied character – he speaks of poverty, hunger, and grief not just as spiritual states but as whole person conditions, which may be the result of social injustice. As the liberation theologians have suggested, the poor most clearly recognize their dependence on God. Unlike the rich who are insulated from reality by high walls, warm homes, abundant meals, and retirement and medical plans, the poor know first hand their need for God’s care. Will the one whose eye on the sparrow also feed the hungry and clothe the naked?

The happy, wealthy, and well-fed are those who live without recognition of their ultimate dependence on the blessings of God and the hard work of those who anonymously serve them. They live in disregard of the poverty and hunger upon which their comfortable lives are often built. Often when we described how blessed we are as middle and upper middle class Americans, we forget that our well-being has been bought at a price. The shadow side of our wealth is the hopelessness of the ghetto and the rural poor, the starvation of the masses in the southern hemisphere, and the realities of global warming and rain forest destruction. To be authentic and life-giving, blessedness must extend to the least of these. If we fail to hear the cries of the poor, we may in our affluence fail to hear God’s aim for our lives. Shalom is a global as well as personal issue in which are called to bless one another by bringing the fullness of life to the least of these as well as those who live by life’s bounty..