Where tables are turned, blessings abound

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

St. John’s, Salem, NJ

We are in the season of Epiphany. In our liturgy we are still talking about stars and light. We COULD, if we wanted to, sing “We Three Kings” today! Epiphany is the season we celebrate the time after Christmas when the light we first celebrate in the manger in Bethlehem first begins to spread beyond just that place to the entire world. Gentile kings follow a star and worship God’s messiah. Then we hear stories of Jesus being baptized and the amazing signs that accompanied that moment. Jesus begins his ministry and works great miracles. Epiphany is about light and revelation. God is revealing Jesus to the world. Hidden things are being revealed. God is making new things known to us, his children. And we celebrate that.
But these new things aren’t always what we expect.
The reading from Corinthians this morning reminds of us that. “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
In case you have never noticed from the scriptures, God has a way of turning tables. Think of the words of Mary in the Magnificat. When she learns that God has chosen her to bear his messiah, she praises God, but her praise isn’t about her situation alone. It is about who God is and what God does. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
God is not placing his strength with those who have strength, but with the weak. He is not rewarding the wealthy with more but taking away from them and giving to the needy. This is ALWAYS God’s message. This is ALWAYS who God is in the scriptures. This is how God acts. Turning tables.
Jesus stands before the crowds gathered to hear him. Would he confound their expectations? He usually did. Jesus tells them about God, and it is the same God who has been speaking to them all along, the God who rescued them from Egypt. The God who heard their cries then, has heard their cries as an oppressed people, now under the Roman occupiers.
Blessed are you!
Jesus doesn’t praise the wealthy. He doesn’t applaud the rulers, the winners, the popular. Jesus is speaking to his people, those with whom he spent his time. He spent his time with the outcast, the needy, the rejected. Refugees. To them he says…
Blessed are you!
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Some have translated this, “Blessed are those whose spirits have been crushed.” These are not “winners” from the world’s point of view. These are those who have been fired. These are the downhearted. These are those who have lost hope. These are the people Jesus is drawn to.
Blessed are YOU! He says! The kingdom of heaven, the true wealth, the lasting treasure, the real riches, God’s kingdom belongs to YOU!
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Mourning is not something the powerful do. If you’re rich, you pretend everything’s ok. Nothing’s wrong with me. I’m a winner! Only losers mourn! Jesus sees things differently. Those who mourn will be comforted. Those who don’t have already found their comfort in other things will not find comfort in God. If you know what it is like to lose someone you love, come and show God your pain. If you know what grief is, God can heal that. But if you won’t admit it, if you pretend it isn’t real, God can’t comfort you.
Blessed are the meek. Oh, now, this one has caused much controversy. “The MEEK???” What are you crazy, Jesus? ‘Meek’ rhymes with ‘weak’? I don’t like the sound of THAT Jesus! Our country has no place for ‘weak’ people!!!
The problem with this word is we can’t translate it easily from what Jesus originally meant. ‘Meek’ is a great King James word, but that has nothing to do with the original language.
I spent a LOT of time looking up ALL the different ways to look up how we might understand this word in our context and our understanding, and the best word I could come up with is “powerless.” Blessed are the powerless, for they will inherit the earth. Do you hear that? They will inherit the earth!?! The powerless! Jesus takes after his mother a LOT! God is casting the mighty down from their thrones. Because the powerless are inheriting the earth here!
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Again, it’s not what you expect. He’s not talking about just the hungry and the thirsty but those who hunger and thirst for what is right. Those who long to see the right prevail. These are the ones who will be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Do you want mercy from God? Give mercy now! Show mercy now! Then you will receive it.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. The religious culture around them were so obsessed with purity laws. Washing their hands. Eating the right things. Not touching wrong things or doing the wrong things on the Sabbath. Jesus reminds them, keep your heart pure. THAT is what God wants!

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” God’s children MAKE peace. Peace is not something that happens automatically. We are all called to be God’s children, are we not? So why aren’t we each working for peace, peace with our neighbors and peace wherever we see the need.
But then come these more ominous words for his disciples and those gathered to hear him, the peacemakers, the meek, those hungering for righteousness.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The times will get hard, Jesus is telling them, this is nothing new. It’s happened before. The prophets suffered for God’s kingdom in their day. They were persecuted by their own neighbors. Rejoice! Jesus tells them! Rejoice? Am I the only one who struggles a bit with these words. When you are persecuted, rejoice.

Recently I’ve been rereading the novel Silence, which Martin Scorsese has made into a film. It tells the story of the earliest converts to Christianity in Japan in the 1600s. They were persecuted mercilessly, publicly humiliated, and yet, they kept their faith. Their strength, they told the priest who heard their confessions, came from God, not from themselves. What a powerful story. Rejoice! Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you on my account. Rejoice!
Jesus confounds us with his expectations and his hope.
Blessed are you!
After all this, we may wonder. How can I possibly measure up? These people sound so committed, so devoted. The meek, the poor in spirit, the peace makers. Where do I start?
The words from Micah this morning give us each a place to start. With the world in such a place of turmoil right now, people afraid, refugees are being used as pawns, our fellow Americans are taking the streets in outrage, many wonder, “What can I do? What does God expect of me?”
Micah tells us: what does the Lord require of you? They are simple words, but if we could each accomplish just these three things, and if each parish family across this nation could work together to make them a reality for each of our parish families, what a difference we could make:
Do justice.
Love kindness.
Walk humbly with your God. Amen.

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