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Sermon - 6 Epiphany

In the Name... In the Monty Python comedy film, "The Quest for the Holy Grail", there is a scene where a pious monk offers the following prayer, "O, Lord, in thine infinite goodness and mercy, Blast thine enemies into tiny little pieces." Well, there's nothing like starting the morning with a few good curses such as we heard today in the reading from Jeremiah, "Thus says the Lord; Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength." Of course, we're used to hearing that sort of thing in the Old Testament. It seems that every few chapters, someone is getting smitten by this one or that one. What a relief to get to the New Testament with its message of peace, mercy, and love your neighbour. Jesus has only words of grace and goodness. Goodbye to the doom and gloom of the Old. Three cheers for the New. Well, that is a nice storyline. Unfortunately, it's not the Bible. What I have just described, however, is how a lot of people think it goes and so when they get to a passage like this morning's Gospel they have trouble because Jesus isn't supposed to be talking about woes. And all the more disturbing in this case because the people he's addressing are not the scribes and Pharisees, nor the Romans and their Jewish Herodian supporters, nor even the heretical Samaritans. It's the Twelve Disciples. A great bishop once said that the Bible was not written to be read in four inch segments, yet that's how our lectionaries have always been arranged. Often, though, to really understand a text, we need to read a bit before and after and right before today's text it presented Jesus at a pivotal moment in his ministry. He had spent the night in prayer and, early in the morning, had chosen, by name, twelve, out of all his followers, to be his inner circle. So, the principal thing we learn from this is that Jesus didn't draw straws. The choice of these men was a deliberate act which was carefully and prayerfully approached. Then, and here's where our lectionary picked up, he took them for a busy day of healing ministry and when the day was done he spoke to them privately about blessings and woes. And that's the second thing we need to note, that this isn't a sermon for the masses. These are private words for the men closest to Jesus and one of these words is very strange, it is the word which was translated in our text as "blessed." Now, this is Jesus speaking so that shouldn't sound very strange. But, there are two words in Greek which we translate as “blessed.” One is “eulogetus” which means "favoured by the gods.” It's a very spiritual word and means that a person has a good relationship with higher powers. The other word is “makarios” which also means "comfortable", or "at ease", "living free from care", and this is a very earthly word. The strange thing is that this is the word Jesus used. And how did he use it? Free from care because you are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. Not exactly what the newly favoured disciples were probably expecting to hear. And, having heard it, ourselves, we may wonder, as well. Again, the key is in the Greek. For example, the word for "poor" is "putuxoi" which doesn't just mean poor, it means utterly destitute, like the most abject beggar, and that hardly describes the Twelve. Matthew had been a wealthy tax collector. Peter, James, John, and Andrew ran commercial fisheries. Even Jesus' family was solidly middle-class. So, how can the disciples be considered poor, let alone destitute? Again, for "hunger" he uses "paino" which means "in pain from starvation." For "weep" it is "klaiontes" which means "to uncontrollably lament and wail." And for "hate" we have "aphoriso" which means "to be cut off, separated, or shunned." In a physical sense, none of these words applies to the Twelve, but, in a spiritual sense they do, because Jesus then sets up a contrast with the four woes. "Woe to you who are rich." The word he uses for rich is "apexo" which means "needs nothing." A person who needs nothing also needs no one - man or God. And when he talks about those who are "laughing", "gelao" doesn't mean to laugh as in having a good time or hearing a good joke, it means "to sneer, to look down upon, to laugh at others' bad luck." Schadenfreude. Do we begin to see a pattern here? Jesus is addressing the future leaders of the Church and he's telling them what choices they will have before them. If they are faithful to him, they will know the utter poverty of standing alone against injustice and false teaching and will have to rely totally on God for strength. They will experience a hunger for righteousness in a world where the lack of it is nothing less than painful. They will be so sensitive to the physical and spiritual needs of others that they will weep over sin and lost opportunities. And, they will be ridiculed, rejected, cut off, and shunned for behaving this way. All this, however, they can avoid by adopting the ways of the world. There is an alternative. They can seek special privilege and position so that they need nothing, not even God. They can set themselves up as holier than thou, like the Pharisees, and look down on others. They can turn a blind eye to the injustice in the world and they can preach a popular message. But, they will never be makarios if they do. They will always be ill at ease because they will always feel they should know better. Jesus takes it for granted that if we're close to him in word and deed we're eulogetus, we're in good standing with God. Of greater concern to him is that we are also makarios, that we are so focused on how to live at ease when tempted by the world's blandishments that we can bring that sense of hope and strength, of personal peace of mind, to those who need it most. Jesus chose the Twelve because he believed they had these qualities of character, of humility and sincerity, of zeal and spirituality, so that he didn't have to worry about them being taken in by the ways of the world. Actually, to be fair, Judas didn't betray Jesus because of a love of worldly values. Like those 20thC Evangelicals who used to pray for nuclear war so as to hurry along the Second Coming, Judas let his excessive zeal for his concept of Messiahship blind him to the way Jesus was doing it. Today, we heard the first lesson Jesus taught his chosen disciples. We too, have been called by name to be his chosen ones and we too, need to hear it. Cursed is the man who relies on man, but, blessed are the people who rely on God. A good curse from the Old Testament. We may be glad it has been repeated in the New. In the Name...

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