Sermon February 13, 2022 Luke 6:17-26 Plain Speaking Rev. Betsy Hogan
So, I don't know about you – but I've spent pretty much this whole week feeling a bit kneedeep in deeply divisive rhetoric.
Just unnuanced, no shades of grey, clearly provocative on purpose, and obviously NOT about anything constructive or helpful like 'seeking common ground' or 'building bridges of understanding' or ANYTHING, really, other than hardening an already uncompromising position into even deeper entrenchment –
-- just rhetoric. That's not only upsetting or even hurtful, but deeply on-purpose divisive.
I'm speaking, of course, about the gospel reading that we just heard, from Luke's gospel. Which the lectionary cycle of Sunday readings that most mainline churches follow has made me have to spend this whole past week thinking about.
In all its deeply divisive rhetorical glory.
Because that's what it is. Jesus and the disciples had gone up into a mountainous area overnight to pray and rest and ready themselves for the next day, and then down they come to a level place below so that he can teach and heal the enormous crowds of people that have come from all over the place to see him –
And then he quiets the crowd on this level place... and he pretty much lets it rip.
Not just "blessed are you who are poor" and "blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled", but also "WOE to you who are rich" and "WOE to you who are full now" and "WOE to you who are all doing great" because WHOA – are you ever in for a surprise.
And he means it.
And it's tempting, because it's more restful, to sort of frame these deeply divisive words in how we try to process them as words that are meant to be provocative and challenging, of course, but in a way that's encouraging.
And not without reason! We have in the various gospels the stories of Nicodemus, for example, and Zacchaeus, and even Matthew the Tax Collector who becomes a disciple – Who all three of them, because of hearing rhetoric like this, teachings like this, from Jesus have responded by feeling called out and challenged by them. But also encouraged. To change.
To CHANGE where they put their trust, to CHANGE from hoarding their wealth or getting it by exploiting others. All three of them – they've heard "woe to you who are rich" and "woe to you if you've more than enough" but HOW they've heard it is as an invitation into a corrective. Into a repentance and onto a new path.
Think of Zacchaeus, who says to Jesus, "All my ill-gotten gains I've given back, all the wealth I've hoarded I've offered back fourfold, and look -- half of what I have I've given to the poor". And Nicodemus, Matthew, Joseph of Arimathea, the gospels are FULL of stories of those who are affluent, who have more than enough, who've responded to "woe to you who are rich" as a calling out, yes, but as an invitation. An encouragement.
An urgent but loving and helpful reminder to SHARE when we have more than enough, and to repent from and turn away from any hoarding or exploitative ways we've had in the past. To change.
And so it's tempting, because it's restful, to sort of frame these words as we try to process them in this same way. Like they're not meant as a condemnation but instead as a deliberately provocative invitation and encouragement to change.
The only problem is, that they ARE meant as a condemnation.
Not some kind of permanent unredeemable personal condemnation – of COURSE they're also a challenge and an encouragement to change, and Nicodemus and Zacchaeus and all the rest of them are proof positive of that –
But when Jesus is standing on this plain and declaring in a loud voice what the Kindom of God looks like... it looks like WOE to anyone who's rich now and whose belly is full, because WHOA, the poverty and brokenness and exploitation in this world is all the kinds of wrongness God abhors and condemns. And enough.
Jesus condemns it too. Full stop. Straightforwardly and firmly in absolutely unequivocal language. Which, if you're poor and hungry, listening to him in that crowd that day? It's probably the best thing you've ever heard.
But if you're affluent and fed and it's all going great? I don't think it should surprise us if some listeners that day went away upset or hurt or even angry. They're not corrupt or bad people – they've worked hard for what they have. I don't think it should surprise us if some of them went away disillusioned that Jesus was being so judgmental and uncompromising and so divisive.
Deliberately sowing seeds of discontent, deliberately setting up an us-and-them, deliberately provoking, insulting, condemning, those who happen to be more affluent instead of trying to engage them in civil discourse, or encouraging both sides to find common ground, or helping to build bridges of understanding between them.
Why is he insisting on being so divisive?
But he's not. He's not creating a division. He's identifying one. He's not creating a division, he doesn't HAVE to. The division's already there in that gaping wide gap between those who have more than enough and those who have nothing.
What Jesus is doing here is choosing a side. And as disconcerting as it may be to us, he's not doing so particularly diplomatically or helpfully or even politely.
He's choosing a side. And if we were to say to him "but shouldn't you be trying to find common ground or build bridges of understanding" what he'd reply is "The common ground doesn't have to be "found". The bridges of understanding don't have to be "built".
"They've existed from the first, they're embedded in our createdness as one human family, and do you want to know what they are," he'd ask?
"That All Lives Matter. It's as simple as that. That's the common ground. That all lives actually matter. Which if you need a bridge to help you get there, it means poor lives actually matter, and hungry lives actually matter, and ignored and disposable and exploited lives actually matter, so THAT'S going to take some adjustments, and adjust yourselves accordingly, but if you want common ground? That's the common ground. Period."
Jesus is choosing a side. He's not doing so diplomatically or helpfully or even particularly politely: he's doing so firmly. And it may be disconcerting but I think it's also really important.
Because we can get wrapped up in the fact that he's choosing a side and isn't willing to compromise. We can flutter that it's "divisive" and shouldn't he be "reaching out" or trying to be "understanding and respectful of differences".
But the side he's choosing so uncompromisedly CONTAINS common ground. It CONTAINS space for everyone. It CONTAINS the fundamental stance of mutual regard for each other's full humanness. It INVITES all lives into all lives mattering. It's just absolutely uncompromising that they do.
And that's the key. What we're called into as Christians is a stance of love of neighbour that CONTAINS that common ground of all lives mattering. That's where its respectfulness is located. That's where its reaching out is located. That's what makes it loving in the Christian sense – the fact that it fundamentally contains the common ground of all lives mattering.
So it's a side that can be chosen. Firmly and absolutely and without compromise, as Jesus does it here. As Desmond Tutu did against apartheid. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer against Naziism. And Martin Luther King against segregation.
The respectfulness and the reaching out and the lovingness are located in the content. All lives matter, and that means ALL lives matter so adjust yourselves accordingly – that side DOES get to be chosen and claimed and proclaimed firmly, without compromise.
The respectfulness and the reaching out and the lovingness are located in the content. They're not contingent on a gentle tone of voice and if anything they're undermined when under the misguided misconception that somehow all points of view are interchangeably fine, we think we should just paper over divides that are serious and they're real.
So yes, it really is exhausting in the extreme to feel like we're already drowning in divisive rhetoric, and then get more. From Jesus, of all people.
But it isn't divisive to identify a divide. And what we're shown unequivocally in this passage is that when that divide is between "some lives matter" on the one hand – affluent lives matter, full belly lives matter, statistically unlikely to suffer serious illness or death from covid lives matter – on the one hand, and "all lives matter" on the other, Jesus picks his side.
And he gets to. It's not somehow weird or unChristian. Because "all lives matter – really all" -- that's where the love of neighbour content is. Full stop.
"So go and do likewise," he says to us. Amen.