Woe to You, Rats!

A Sermon for Epiphany 6C
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26

One of the funnier movies I have seen in the last few years was a zany one, and I’ll admit I like zany movies, called “Rat Race.” It was really a throwback to a classic movie made in the 60’s called, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” In both films a cast chocked full of your favorite actors and actresses go on a crazy adventure full of wacky situations and characters in hopes of getting an amazing treasure at the end – a fun concept, no doubt. Indeed we see other “normal” people doing extraordinarily stupid and abnormal things every week in order to get rich or famous or both on reality TV shows.

In the end these films and shows tell us more about ourselves than perhaps we are willing to admit. These films and shows only work because of one universal and timeless truth: people will do just about anything for money. Haven’t you ever wished that you could be on the show, be on a scavenger hunt for millions, win the lottery or have Publishers Clearing House knock on your door?

No wonder we want money so desperately – we need money desperately! Our society and economy make it so easy to go into debt. Just walk across campus during the first week of school. Credit card companies are out in force trying to sign up another generation of great American debtors. You can refinance your home, multiple times, in order to transfer your debt from one column to another. If you can’t wait for payday, you can take a loan out against future paychecks. Yes, my friends, most of us have to admit that at least at one point in our lives, we have been part of the Rat Race, which led Lily Tomlin to observe that winning the rat race simply means you are a fast rat.

In case you didn’t notice, this morning’s readings contain some heavy words, words that might make us squirm a bit, or rationalize a bit. We don’t mind hearing them, as long as they don’t apply to us. Both the prophecy of Jeremiah and the prophetic words of Jesus in Luke aren’t gentle but rather harsh, full of warnings and what would seem to be “bad news.”
Jeremiah, mouthpiece for the Lord, uses stark language to wake up his hearers. He speaks of both blessing and curses. Jesus’ words come to us from what is called “the Sermon on the Plain.” If it sounded familiar, it is for good reason – it’s Luke’s version of “the Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew’s gospel – only here is Jesus obviously not on a mountain or even a hill, but on a level place. This sermon is a lot shorter. And a striking difference between this sermon and that in Matthew is that this one not only contains the “Blessed are” verses we hear echoed in the Beatitudes, but this account also contains several “Woe to you” verses. Blessings and curses, like in Jeremiah.

“Cursed are those who put their trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord,” Jeremiah writes. Jesus warns quite explicitly those who are rich, while at the same time blessing the poor – a very similar concept in some ways to Jeremiah’s warning. The rich Jesus describes are self-satisfied, content – they need no one else, including God. But the poor need God desperately because God is the only hope they have left.
When we hear the word “poor” we may think of someone who has lost her job, or is a bit down on his luck. When Jesus says the word “poor” – especially the Greek word used here – ptochoi – we need to think of someone far more desperate. These are the class of people in Jewish society that I like to call the “hopelessly” poor. They are homeless, penniless and with no reason to hope for anything to change for them. Some of them have been cast out of society, others are completely alone with no family to support them. It is these people Jesus calls blessed.

Now I spent a period of my life barely making a living wage. Times were tight, yet still I had an apartment and a car. In truth, I have never really been poor, not “poor” in the way Jesus means it. I have never really gone hungry. Sure there were times I couldn’t buy the best cut of meat or the name-brand ice-cream, but I have never been forced to miss a meal due to financial hardship. And I thank God for this fact.

There are people like this in today’s world – the desperately poor, the hopelessly poor. They are dying as I speak – a child dies every five seconds from hunger. These are the poor Jesus is blessing. They are still with us.

So I must ask myself – which group am I in that Jesus is addressing? I have to ask myself what must movies like “Rat Race” or these reality shows look like to the hopelessly poor? Rich people just trying to get richer – what a concept!

Ok, some of you have had enough already. As the saying goes, “Preacher’s gone from preachin to meddlin.” But these are the readings Christians all over the world are hearing this morning. You may say, “But hey, isn’t it still Epiphany? What happened to the wise men and the bright star?”
Well, during these last few Sundays of Epiphany, we start to hear echoes of Lent coming near. Next Sunday is the last Sunday of Epiphany, and after that, Lent begins. Lent is a time to take stock, to reflect. I believe these curses and woes should rub us the wrong way – tenderizing our consciences as it were, for the Lenten season ahead. Jeremiah’s words should sting a bit. Jesus’ words should make us squirm.

Where is my happiness coming from? Does it come from financial security? Does it come from the things I possess? Does it come from a relationship with another person? It would seem Jesus is saying that when we draw our happiness from our material possessions, when we draw our contentment from our happy circumstances and our good fortune, when we find happiness only in another human being, we have reached the limit of that happiness. There’s nothing more to be gained.

How many times have we thought in our most secret thoughts and fantasies – “if only I could have ____, then I’d be happy”? Fill in that blank with whatever you will – the model of a car, the size of a plasma TV, the address of a house, the name of a person. If this is your end, you may well get it, but what happens when you do get it. Have you had that moment of clarity afterward thinking – is this all there is? Those are the moments some call “thin places” where we find ourselves uncomfortable, unsatisfied, unhappy and wanting more. We are suddenly aware of our situation and are paying attention. That’s when God speaks. By God’s grace the spirit convinces us in moments like those – there’s more to life than this. The transitory nature of things means we will always be chasing the next fad, the better computer, the newer video game, the prettier wife, the handsomer husband.

Jesus’ words should cause us to take a step back – woe to you who are rich, those whose homes are full of stuff, by-gone dreams, goals attained long ago. These things are their own reward for pursuing them. We catch them, and now they collect dust. Things break. Spouses age. Debts come due.

Jesus points to this turning of the tables – woe to the satisfied, you will be hungry; woe to you who laugh now, you will weep then. A time is coming, Jesus says, that the first will be last, the rulers will become the slaves, the persecuted will be consoled. This is Jesus as prophet at his finest.

It is to the poor, the hungry, the outcasts that Jesus comes. The rich don’t need him. Last week we heard the story of Jesus calling the disciples. Jesus showed them a great sign by the huge catch of fish, the nets breaking, the boats sinking. But what is easy to miss is what Jesus calls Peter, James and John and the others to is leave it all behind – walk away. That includes this HUGE catch of fish – money in their pockets. Walk away, Peter, and follow me.
Jesus turned their hearts away from the wealth of industry to the wealth of human beings. Many of those who had chosen to follow Jesus had walked away from the things they once owned, their livelihoods, even their families. Jesus was calling them to radical obedience, but Jesus wasn’t simply calling them to walk away to nothing. This wasn’t going to be a monastic, ascetic existence. They left their families to find they had a new family. They left behind riches to discover a different kind of wealth. They even walked away from a sure meal to being fed on a hillside with loaves and fishes.

How then do we who are rich avoid being among those who are cursed? I dare say we must spend our lives figuring that out. This is what it means in part to “work out our salvation.” Some are called to radical obedience, like the disciples. Some have given up everything they had for the sake of the poor – Ghandi was a successful lawyer, remember, and Mother Teresa came from an aristocratic, landed family.

Others are called to lives of service, working for justice, striving to eliminate poverty, malnutrition, working for better schools and adequate health-care. But my, can’t we easily fall into the trap – if only they were like us, they would be happy. I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company. What an inane song!
If only they had democracy, like us. If only they had cars, and houses and appliances like ours. If only the entire world was like America – would we be happy? Are we happy?

Still others of us are still waiting for the next, very special politician to give us vision, provide us meaning and purpose, to show us the way forward. Still? Hands up anyone who has never been let down by a politician? In the 2000 election debates when asked who his favorite political philosopher was George W Bush said, “Jesus,” to the snickers of the media and intelligentsia. I say, “GREAT, Mr. President! Do you really mean it?”

Jesus identified himself with the poor, the powerless, the outcast. Jesus was not interested in political power or prestige but in protecting those who had been harmed by those who had power. Jesus did not put people in prison, but visited them. Jesus didn’t lobby for medical research money – he visited the sick. Jesus didn't seek political power — he stood against the powerful. Simple as that.
At this year’s diocesan council, we heard a bit more about the Millennium Development Goals – a series of resolutions adopted by the national church and recently made the official agenda of Katherine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop, for her 9-year tenure. They are resolutions calling on us to work for economic justice in the world – not turning poor countries into capitalist ventures but working to eliminate corruption and violence. To work for health care for all people despite their ability to pay. To work for education and basic human rights, especially for women and children. The Presiding Bishop believes these goals are attainable, and I do too! If you want to know what you can do individually to realize the blessedness of the poor, to move away from the curse of wealth – stay tuned. You’re going to hear a lot about these things in the coming months and years. Indeed, I’m sure you’ll hear a great deal about them next year when Katherine is our keynote speaker at Diocesan Council.

This is a global effort, not invented by the church, but a movement in which we are heartily participating, and rightly so. As the church we bring something more than just good intentions and political theory to the table. We know that happiness doesn’t come from a store. We know that human beings, poor or rich, are more than just stomachs that need to be filled and brains that need to be educated. We know how important it is to discover the source from which each and every one of us derives life and strength. If there’s not enough hope to go around, it is up to us to proclaim the good news of God’s reign – a vision of a world where the hungry are fed, the outcast welcomed in, the seats of unjust power are overturned, where guns are thrown away.

Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s words draw our attention away from money, from status, from power, from being comfortable, and they point us back to our source. I love the imagery in Jeremiah. A tree on its own in the desert is vulnerable to the elements – it relies too heavily on the changes and chances of weather cycles. But Jeremiah’s vision of the blessed poor are those who understand their need, those who understand where their source is. The blessed are like trees planted by a stream, a land rich and fertile. Their trust is in God, not in things.

It is in recognizing our need that we most identify with the poor, but we must not just recognize it – we must identify with that need and do something about it. It’s not enough to tell the poor, “Trust in God.” That was Marx’s criticism of religion – it sedates those in need, redirects their desperation. These people are trusting God for a miracle. Guess what – we are that miracle! What if we forgave third-world debt? What if we spent 1/10 of what we do on entertainment and fast food and war in this country to help rebuild the most desperate places, including our own Gulf Coast.

We are about to receive food. It’s not a lot. It’s not enough to satisfy your physical hunger. But what do we say after we have received this food – this meal of grace. “Send us out to do the work you have given us to do!” This meal is not an end in itself – it is way bread for our journey. It’s not for solace only – it’s for strength. It’s not for comfort only, but for renewal. When worship has ended, the true service begins.

May we truly hunger for the righteousness God has promised to those who seek it. May we discover ourselves to be in one of those “thin places” where we know in our depths that our true source is not material goods, but spiritual grace and membership in the family of God. May we discover that in seeking God, we, like the poor, may finally find ourselves blessed. Amen.

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