Rev. Dr.Molly Scherm
In this Epiphany season in our year with Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Today we have heard the blessings and the woes, and next week we will continue with Jesus’ teaching about right behavior toward one’s neighbor.
In the narrative we’ve heard in this Epiphany season
And now he begins to teach what it is that the Realm of God looks like.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, often talks about “God’s dream for the world”. In the teachings of the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus begins to outline just what it is that God envisions, what God dreams, what God pays attention to.
In short, God’s dream for the world pretty completely reverses the world as it is:
Those who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping now are blessed by God,
While those who are rich, and full, and laughing now have had theirs, and will find themselves without.
Jesus echoes the words of Mary’s song, that God “fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty”. In the same vein, Jesus has described the nature of his own ministry using the word’s of Isaiah:
God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
Reversing the conditions of the world as it is.
We even see this in the details of the way Luke pictures the moment for us: unlike the sermon in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus ascends a mountain to teach, here Jesus stands on a “level place”, right in the midst of those who have come in need of healing.
His words, too, are direct: rather than declaring “blessed are those who…”, he speaks personally to those in need: “blessed are YOU…”.
There’s even a fascinating suggestion in Luke’s observation that Jesus “looks up” to address himself to the disciples. Have the disciples stepped apart from the unruly crowd to separate themselves?
Is he perhaps saying to them:
“These hurting folks around us are the ones who God notices, the ones God cares about. We need to do the same.”
Father Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the first to articulate the themes of Liberation Theology, observes that God has a “preferential love for the poor” not because the poor are any better than anyone else spiritually, but because they suffer in an unjust world, and because it is God’s nature to love where there is suffering.
If the world were divided into those who suffer and are blessed and those who are comfortable and are not, where would I find myself? It’s an unpleasant question to ask. So what do the blessings and the woes mean for us who are advantaged? Are we cursed to the extent that our lives are easy?
I think the wisdom Jesus offers here is that wealth and privilege are dangerous because they have the power to separate us from God and from the human community. When we are comfortable, we so easily lose touch with our need for God. We start thinking that the stuff of the world is what’s important and meaningful.
This is basically what we heard from Jeremiah this morning:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
(but) Blessed are those whose trust is in the Lord.
The opportunity those of us who have been either inadvertently or by our own efforts privileged by the world is to notice those who are without worldly blessings, who are hungry or lost or suffering, and to care about them, sharing what we have.
We are invited to stand on the level ground with those who are broken and oppressed, to address them personally, and to do something that makes a difference.
As I have been thinking about this gospel passage in recent weeks, I have thought a lot about one of the ministries of this parish that I am incredibly fortunate to be a part of.
The Caregivers Support group has met every other week since September 2016, as a place where those who are caring for a loved one with a chronic condition can be together. Members do both practical sharing of problem-solving strategies AND they support one another by listening with acceptance and understanding.
I have learned from my own listening in the group that living with chronic or progressive illness – whether as the sufferer or the caregiver – is an experience of loss. With serious ongoing illness
Jesus said “Blessed are you who weep”. Walking with the caregivers has shown me ways in which this is true.
The caregivers in the support group model and convey God’s love to one another as they listen, as they laugh together without judgement, as they offer practical tidbits of advice on how they have dealt with common problems. They offer God’s love as they care about one another’s losses.
I observe, also, that in acknowledging their fatigue, their fears and frustrations AND YET continually rising to meet the challenges that face them, these caregivers are experiencing the God who is within them and working through them.
Honestly, at the end of the day I don’t think any of us are exclusively woeful or exclusively blessed.
The Good News is that God hears us and cares for us, God is close to us and remains with us.
Our is to accept the blessing and to BE the blessing.
Let us stand together on a level place and listen to one another.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
In this first Sunday after Epiphany we leave behind the stable and star, the shepherds and the wise men, and turn our attention to the life and ministry of Jesus, beginning by remembering Jesus’ own baptism.
Today is one of the occasions in the church year that the Prayer Book commends as being particularly appropriate for the sacrament of Baptism, and today we are particularly delighted to welcome Clara Rose Patrick into the Body of Christ.
We commemorate Baptism of our Lord every year for two reasons:
While Jesus’ baptism by John is referred to in all four gospels, it has also been a problematic story for Christians. Theologian David Lose refers to it as a “scandalous” story.
Christians have asked, apparently since time of the early church, why Jesus needed to be baptized, if he was in fact, the Messiah, the Savior
Judaism originated practice of ritual cleansing – the symbolic of washing away past life in preparation for new life to come. This might give us a clue as to why baptism was important – even necessary - for Jesus.
All four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism are unique. Luke’s version is interesting that it doesn’t include the baptism itself – reading closely we see that
Luke is interested in what happens afterward.
Luke tells us the important thing happened while J was praying. Prayer is what Jesus did, what Jesus taught us to do, as means of creating space away from the demands and occupations of life, to be quiet and open himself – ourselves – to the presence and the voice of God.
We can imagine Jesus stepping aside, after the baptism itself, as the water dried, to create a quiet space to ponder and cherish the moment, to open himself to God’s presence
It was at this moment, Luke tells us, that
the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
That image of “the heavens opening” is such a powerful & compelling detail.
It suggests that what has separated us from God is no longer, that God is no longer behind the firmament, up in the clouds, at a distance, but rather, here among us.
In that moment, I believe that something was made complete in Jesus:
I believe the experience of knowing God’s loving voice, after his baptism, not only confirmed, but completed something in Jesus that made him ready to venture forth to what lay ahead.
Let’s not miss, in the voice of God to Jesus after the baptism, the clear and close echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
When he heard God’s voice, Jesus knew in the depths of his being that he was loved, that he was chosen and claimed. He knew and felt God’s Spirit, God’s grace, inhabiting and directing him.
And here is the real point:
In our own baptism, God offers the same to all of us.
In Clara Rose’s baptism this morning, we recognize God claiming her as God’s beloved child.
Twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich said "Salvation is simply accepting the fact that we have (already) been accepted."
God claims us.
God seeks to tear open all of the barriers and boundaries we construct to separate us from God.
G calls out that we are beloved, and moves to fill us with the grace that enables us to -
Pass through the rivers, that they will not overwhelm us,
Through the fire, that we shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume us.
As we know, Jesus’ path ahead was 40 difficult days in the wilderness. His path was then a ministry of love and forgiveness in a world of hate that wearied him, wounded him, and eventually killed him.
We believe, though, that his knowledge and experience of God’s love, received in his baptism, was the gift he carried with him, that enabled him to endure, and finally, rise again on the third day.
This first Sunday after Epiphany, this memory of Jesus’ baptism, and our own, is a reminder of God’s promise, and God’s call –
Do not fear, says the Holy One. I have called you by name and you are mine.
And, the Holy One promises, I will give you what you need
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The world is full of suffering. So much of it feels incomprehensible and entirely demoralizing. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, find ourselves asking how a just God can allow the suffering we see.
Sometimes the suffering is personal and individual. This summer I visited with a hospice patient who was dying, in her 40’s, and leaving behind children. She asked why God was letting this happen to her.
Sometimes the world’s suffering happens on a larger scale, either as a result of human frailty, or human evil. Yesterday we again heard the devastating news of a mass shooting in a congregation of people simply gathered for prayer, and in recent months we have watched the unfolding drama of persons fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands, looking for asylum in our own country, only to be turned away (at best) or put into detention.
And this is apart from the tragedy of millions losing their homes, businesses, and sometimes their lives to extreme weather events occurring (at least in part) because our species has been unwilling to make the changes that might alter the course of global warming.
How can God allow it? This is the question asked by an ancient poet who took an even more ancient legend and produced the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Scriptures, from which we have been hearing excerpts for the last three weeks, and then again this morning.
The legend that opens and closes Job is a pretty disturbing tale. The narrator tells us that a man named Job was a person of integrity, and without sin. He was fully blessed by wealth, family, and the respect of all who knew him.
One day it seems that things got boring in the heavenly court where God hung out with the angels, and was bragging about Job and Job’s faithfulness. An accusing angel suggested that Job was only faithful because he had it so easy. And so God and the Accuser decided to enter into a bet. God allowed the Accuser, Satan, to punish Job with terrible suffering, to determine whether Job would retain his faith or not.
And so Job’s sons and daughters were all killed in a terrible building collapse, and his servants and flocks likewise all died in a series of attacks by enemies, and finally, Job himself contracted a horrible disease. Despite his wife’s loss of faith – she urged him to “Curse God and die” – Job remained faithful.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken;” he told her, “may the name of the Lord be blessed”*. This is the Job of whom James wrote in his Epistle, when he spoke of “the patience of Job”.
As Job sat, living with the losses that had befallen him, three of his friends came to visit, to mourn with and comfort him.
And then the great poem that constitutes the Book of Job begins, and it tells a different story than the one to which we had been listening.
The poet’s Job finds, in himself, a different voice, and he begins to cry out in outrage against the troubles that have befallen him.
God damn the day I was born, and the night that forced me from the womb…
Why couldn’t I have died as they pulled me out of the dark?
Now I would be at rest.
Job’s friends, who have sat silently with him up until this point, can’t live with this angry Job’s new attitude.
They are very certain of the way reality is structured – God rewards the just and punishes evildoers. The tragedies that have happened to their friend must be the result of SOME sin he has committed: he needs to acknowledge it, and perhaps God will show mercy.
For about 35 chapters, Job and his friends debate the question of whether his suffering is the result of his (or even his children’s) sin, with both sides becoming increasing more strident and insistent.
God doesn’t make mistakes, the friends argue – there must be something Job has forgotten, which has caused his punishment, and the sooner he acknowledges it, the better. He will only be getting himself into worse cahoots with God if he persists in his denials.
For his part, Job grows more and more adamant that God is not behaving with the justice that Job expects of God:
God does not care: so I say
he murders both the pure and the wicked.
How can I prove my innocence?
Do I have to beg him for mercy?
Job eventually addresses himself directly to God – demanding a reckoning, his day in court, as it were:
Grant me one thing only, and I will not hide from your face:
Accuse me…I will respond
Or let me speak, and answer me.
What crime have I committed,
and how have I sinned against you?
Why do you hide your face
As if I were your enemy?
And so eventually God does show up, and responds to Job in a voice out of the whirlwind.
But God does not give Job the answers he demands: instead, he gives Job more questions. In a stunning series of images, God asks Job, in effect, “what do you really know?”
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Have you ever commanded morning,
Or guided dawn to its place?
Do you hunt game for the lioness
And feed her ravenous cubs?
Do you tell the antelope to calve,
Or ease her when she is in labor?
Do you show the hawk how to fly,
Stretching his wings on the wind?
And, astonishingly, God acknowledges the validity of Job’s challenges:
Do you dare to deny my judgement?
Am I wrong because you are right?
And after hearing God’s words, Job is both silenced and satisfied:
I know you can do all things,
And nothing you wish is impossible.
I have spoken of the unspeakable
And tried to grasp the infinite.
I had heard of you with my ears
But now my eyes have seen you.
The translation we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard translation, has Job conclude with these words:
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
I much prefer the translation of poet Stephen Mitchell:
Therefore I will be quiet,
Comforted that I am dust.
The Book of Job concludes with a return to the original legend. God chastises Job’s friends:
You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.
God rewards Job with a return to health and prosperity, and Job lives for a hundred and forty years and “dies at a very great age”.**
So does this help us to understand the world’s sufferings that we began with?
Of course it doesn’t.
What this magnificent text teaches us is that we’re not God, and we are not going to understand. It holds a mirror up to the foolishness of our desire to write the rules and define the terms. Like Job, we don’t command the morning, or feed the lioness’ cubs, or show the hawk how to fly.
Our job is to live the best lives we can and do as much good as we can, accepting as graciously as we can the troubles that come our way, without claiming the right to determine whether or not they are “fair”.
And the text teaches us something else as well.
It reminds us of the grace of God’s presence with us, even in our most painful times.
It reminds us that even in the reality of our pain, it’s not all about us. As Job discovered, there is some comfort in understanding that we are dust, and that we only need to be ourselves, that we don’t need to be God.
When terrible things happen, we need to grieve, and then, little by little, we need to move forward, back into the blessings that we lose sight of when we suffer loss.
Ours is a faith that the cross is followed by the resurrection. Our call is to embody God’s presence in the world, through our love and service.
IN the name of God. Amen
**All quotations from Job in this sermon (except where otherwise noted) are from the Stephen Mitchell translation, published by Harper Perennial, 1987
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