Choose!

A sermon, based on Jeremiah 17.5-10, Psalm 1, and Luke 6.17-26, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019

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“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”

So, says the prophet Jeremiah, who seems to suggest that we have a choice of being cursed or blessed, which, it seems to me, is a strange way of speaking. For as I reflect on life, my life, much, most of it that has a bearing on whether or not I feel cursed or blessed is beyond my control.

The patterns and movements of natural events, like the weather and the climate and aging are beyond my power to command and to choose…

The polities and policies of societies, governments, and institutions are beyond my power to command and to choose…

The attitudes and actions of everyone around me, family and friends, acquaintances and strangers, you are beyond my power to command and to choose…

All of which, all of whom can and do affect me greatly, whether for good or ill, are beyond my power to command and to choose.

As all of this is true, all of the time, being, feeling blessed or cursed is less an issue of my choice and more a matter of my circumstance. And as I observe the ways and works of life in this world, that is, the way this world works, I tend to believe that folks who have material abundance or social prominence or both are blessed and cursed are those who don’t. Simple!

But my definitions are not the Bible’s definitions…

Jeremiah speaks of blessedness and cursedness…

Psalm 1 of righteousness and wickedness…

Jesus of blessings and woes.

All, especially Jesus, turn my definitions upside down, verily, discount them entirely. For those whom I call blessed are the very ones to whom Jesus cries: “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who are laughing, woe to you when all speak well of you.”

Jesus challenges not only my point of view, my perspective, but also, more painfully, my preferences. Truth is, I’ve yet to attain the lifestyle to which I’d love already to have become accustomed. I’d rather be “rich” with enough money for necessities and all the luxuries my heart desires. I’d rather be “full,” having my hungers, physical and emotional, always completely satisfied. I’d rather be “laughing,” knowing only pleasure, never pain. I’d rather have “all speak well” of me, enjoying the fullest measure of a good and unassailable reputation.

But, in response to all of my fervent desiring, Jesus, repeatedly, relentlessly, says, “Woe!”

The more I read and reflect on, wrestle with Jesus’ words, it seems to me that he and Jeremiah and the psalmist are talking about our values. In this, they intend more than some pious declaration, some holier-than-thou denunciation of the world’s bankrupt value system in which material possessions, personal gratification, and public adulation are the standard measures of worth. Rather the subject, their subject is our inward spiritual condition. Whether a state or existence of cursedness of which a false value system is only an outward symptom. Or a state or existence of blessedness of which a true value system is, sacramentally-speaking, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

If that’s it, then what is this true value system? A question I will answer with a question. A question I perceive at the heart of the teaching of Jesus, Jeremiah, and the psalmist: Who or what do we call “God”? Who is the one to whom, what is that thing to which we accord ultimate worth, supreme value?

Is it the God to whom we prayed, paraphrasing this morning’s Collect: “O God, our strength because we trust you and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us your grace that we, keeping your commandments, may please you in will and deed”?(1) Or is it someone or something else, someone or something less?

And the answer, our answer to that question, therefore, whether we are cursed or blessed, is a matter of our choice.

 

 

Footnote:
(1) Full text of the Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Choose!

  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for your validation of my perception of the “upside-downness” of Jesus’ woe-to-you perspective on so many things that our utterly human eyes view as the very things that are desirable for human comfort and security. The suggestion is clearly that Jesus honors and values those experiences we all spend our lives trying to avoid – poverty, hopelessness, illness, abandonment, sorrow, injustice, etc. And you conclude that the question that illuminates this paradox is “Who or what is God to us? Who or what is of ultimate value, supreme worth?”

    Oh, yes, I think you went right to the heart of it all with that insight, and I think it relates to the question “What does it profit a person if s/he gains the whole world and loses her/his soul?” For I have come to believe that it is largely the recognition and experience of suffering that nurtures, grows, and develops the soul in us, the soul which is the living linkage of ourselves with God, with the Ultimate, with Love in its largest sense. My experience has been that the soul link is forged through experiences of profound joy and awe, but also of profoundest pain, through experiences that call on our deepest resources to respond to the most powerful stimuli humans can perceive. And through such experiences we are able to grow in relationship to everything and everyone around us, we become more related to everything that exists, just as God/Love is completely and eternally related to everything that exists by virtue of being the Source and Creator of all.

    We become, I believe, through our own experiences of joy and awe and of pain, companions and stewards of all of Creation, from our own selves, to our fellow humans, to the planet and everything in it, to the ends of the cosmos and eternity. Our underlying unity with all of Creation is perfected in comprehending and living into Jesus’ upside-down view of what it means to be alive.

    I so much appreciate your calling me to this meditation. I have been struggling today with the appalling gravity of the climate change situation, and this sermon has helped me to re-think and re-evaluate my despair at our complacency with the suffering of our planet. I am still deeply saddened at what is happening and our lack of any meaningful response, but I will now try to view the bleakness through Jesus’ upside-down value system for a more complete perspective.

    As always, with great gratitude and love, dear brother Paul,

    Karen

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  2. Ah, my dear Karen, you, as always, in your sharing of words (poems and songs and commentary, whether of the poems and songs or in regard to my posts), give me a new perspective or, perhaps, a refreshed perspective.

    In this case, your description of Jesus’ view “upside-down value system” (a characterization that hadn’t occurred to me) helps me to behold Jesus’ teaching as right-side up, that is, a corrective to the world’s way of assessing possession and privilege and reputation as chiefest measures of worth…

    Your words also help me see something more clearly. That is, that Jesus, in citing the states of blessedness, declares that the poor possess the kingdom of God, the hungry will be filled, the weeping will laugh, the hated will be rewarded, and in saying, “Woe!”, the rich, hungry, laughing, and honored all have received their benefits. In other words, as each successive blessing is a mirror image of each woe and as each blessing indicates something yet to be received while each woe references a state of benefit already obtained, this is a striking, stirring prophetic word of what will be, what will come in the divine-intention of cosmic reversal. Aye, the last shall be first and the first last…

    This was…is so central, crucial to Jesus’ teaching and his being and doing, it no longer is any wonder as to why we human do not care to follow him. This brings me to you concern about climate change. I fear that as long as humans…as we are human, we, as a body (presently and in history), particularly, in this dimension, I think of governments and institutions and those that wield what the world considers power, will serve our own self-interested purposes. Those purposes, I think, I fear, have little to do with creation-care or environmental (human!) sustainability. Hence, I cleave to your sense of living into our experiences of joy AND pain as a way (1) to identify fully with our own individual living and, more, (2) to identify with all of life – God and others and the creation. Knowing this, doing this, I pray, can and will continue to move us, each and all, in our daily, small ways to care for others and the creation. The effects of our efforts may not be great. Yet dare I imagine what – and how soon – our end would be if folk of good will, believing we would do nothing, did nothing.

    A luta continua… The struggle continues…

    With love,
    Paul

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  3. Dear Paul,

    Yesterday at my Mom’s birthday party I was discussing your sermon with one of the other children of one of the residents with dementia. I brought it up because she mentioned that she believed her family was cursed because of her Mom’s dementia. She asked me if our family felt the same way. I told her I choose to feel Blessed and suggested she read your sermon and my comments. She did read your sermon last night and Karen’s comment and emailed me to say she didn’t see my comment that I said I had written….. and she was right!! It’s NOT here!! It was so well thought out too (of course I can say that now that it’s floating in cyberspace somewhere)… it even said your reply has been posted as it always does.

    In any case please know that I loved the sermon and my comments started with “I choose to be Blessed”…I related to every single thing you wrote… the feelings of wanting more stuff, more money, better relationships etc….I too have wanted all that.

    In spite of it all, and I listed lots of stuff that I won’t rewrite especially since you know my life pretty well that I choose to be Blessed. Turns out I don’t need more stuff and through all of the trials and tribulations I don’t feel cursed either.

    One of the reasons I asked the woman to read your sermon was because I listed a few reasons as to why I have chosen to view Mom’s dementia as s Blessing of sorts. As you know, Mom had all kinds of anxieties prior to dementia, and now they are all gone. She seems to be in a very peaceful place… and though I wouldn’t have chosen this horrible disease for her or anyone else, there have been a few benefits to it.

    So anyway please know that I shared your blog and I hope it helped her… and this sermon will also help me as I continue to write in my class.

    Much love

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  4. Thank you, Loretta. I am honored and humbled that you shared my sermon with another.

    As for cursedness and blessedness, aye, I know you, thus, know that you choose to be blessed. Your attitude, as the rhyming line has it, of gratitude is, for me, a supreme expression of one…of your choosing to behold life as blessing. Brava! I admire you.

    Love you, too.

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