"Who's Who In God's Kingdom"
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
February 17, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Central Passage
Luke 6:17-26
Epiphany 6C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: February 17, 2019 – Epiphany 6C

Luke 6:17-26


Who’s Who In God’s Kingdom


              Sometime between my junior and senior years of high school, a letter arrived for me. It informed me that I – yes, I! – had been nominated to be part of a “highly prestigious” volume entitled Who’s Who Among American High School Students. They assured me that the nomination and selection process had been quite rigorous, and while I could be listed in the volume for free, I could own my own hardback fancy copy for the low, low price of $34.95! Plus, I could be eligible for scholarships! Plus, admissions counselors at elite universities all considered students from this volume! Plus, I could also buy a commemorative keychain or a diploma frame! What a deal!


              I’m amazed that I, with an ego about the size of Texas, didn’t buy one. It turned out (surprise, surprise) that Who’s Who Among American High School Students had nothing to do with the Marquis’ Who’s Who in America publications. It was a vanity publication, catering to narcissistic parents and anxious students. Simply put, it was a scheme to make a quick buck.


              And what better place to make a quick buck than from people who are desperate to feel good about themselves and their life situation. From people who want the world to know that THEY are winners. That THEY are worth remembering. That they have a rightful place among the significant people of the world.


              Isn’t that all of us? Despite having Midwestern modesty hammered into our skulls as children, I think most of us want to be recognized. We want to be praised for who we are and what we’ve done (though not in our presence so we don’t feel uncomfortable!). We want to be winners. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to strive for excellence in whatever you do.


              The problem happens when we turn winning into an idol. When we take as our personal credo the sentiment of coach Vince Lombardi (who probably heard it from UCLA football coach Red Sanders), “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” we’ve done exactly that. We’re declaring that either you’re a winner or you’re garbage. No in-between. No middle ground. You’re either priceless or worthless.


              We humans have often thought that way. Which is why it’s amazing that Jesus takes that dualism; that black-and-white thinking and turns it on its head. For Jesus, the losers are the winners in the Kingdom of God.


              Look at how the Gospel reading begins. Unlike Matthew’s version of this sermon, Jesus doesn’t go up a mountain. He comes down from the mountain to a level place. He comes down to be among the people – and what a mixed bag they are! Jews and Gentiles both are part of this crowd. They come all the way from Jerusalem in the south to Sidon (Gentile territory) in the north. And many of these people are sick or demon-possessed. When Jesus heals these people, he is showing what the Kingdom of God is like before he tells them. In other words, Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Plain through actions first. The Old Testament prophets would have recognized this as “enacted prophecy”. Jesus gives a foretaste of the future realm of God by bringing wholeness of body, mind, and spirit to those who are broken. To the poor. The sick. The mourning. The losers and nobodies of the world.


              That’s how Jesus sets the stage for his blessings and curses. Those who are poor or hungry or weeping or persecuted for Jesus’ sake are those who are blessed. Those that the world curses are the ones that God esteems. Just look at the human language used – by that alone you can tell who the world thinks is worth something. The Greek word for “poor” is ptochos – as if you were spitting on them. It’s an ugly word. In contrast, the Greek word for “rich” is plousios – a full, pleasant word, like spreading a thick pat of butter on bread. The world loves winners – and it shows in human language.


              But Jesus loves those the world disregards. Those that our society discards like wads of used tissue paper are those that Jesus values more highly than anything else.


              And then we get to the uncomfortable part. This is the part that should make us all shudder.


              Our translation says, “How terrible for you rich.” Sometimes you hear “Woe to you rich”. That’s not strong enough. It should be something like, “Disaster on you rich!” or “Damn you rich!” That’s how strong the Greek word ouai is. Now, in the Midwest, no sane person ever thinks of herself as rich. The rich person is the one who has at least 20% more than what you have. But if we go on, our discomfort increases, Jesus pronounces ouai on those who have plenty. Those who laugh. Those who are spoken well of. All of these things that we want to be and to have? They are the very things that Jesus curses.


              Why does Jesus curse these attributes that we think of as good? Well, they are good. That’s why we idolize them. We idolize wealth. We idolize a good reputation. We idolize happiness. They so easily become our god. When we have these things, we put our trust in them. How quickly we go from “I’m so privileged,” to “I’m so blessed,” to “I did all of this myself.” Again, we love and idolize winners.


              But if we take a good look at ourselves in God’s mirror (which, by the way, is the 2nd use of the law), we can see that these things we idolize are so, so temporary. We can’t take our wealth with us, not even the guy in the joke who brought gold bars to heaven, only to be told, “You brought pavement!?” Even our good reputation isn’t forever. One day, no one will remember who Andrew Carnegie was, no matter how many libraries he funded. Our permanent worth is in God’s eyes. And we see that in God’s eyes, both blessings and curses apply to us. Ultimately, we’re poor. All we have and all we are in the present moment is temporary. The blessing is that in Christ, our ultimate poverty which culminates in death becomes a wealth that cannot be measured with dollars and cents or land values and annuities. Our ultimate worth lies in the One who was raised from the dead and freed us from sin and death. In Jesus, we are blessed. In Jesus, we are somebody. And more than somebody. Remember that Jesus takes on everything that we are so that we can take on everything that he is. Luther called this the “happy exchange”. Jesus took on the poverty of our humanity, prone to disease, death, and decay, so that we could share in his divinity. In other words, because Jesus is Son of God, God in Christ adopts us as sons and daughters. Our poverty is turned into wealth beyond imagination.


              And when we can trust in God who guarantees our ultimate worth as a divine son or daughter in Christ, then we will know we are blessed.


              Let us pray.


              Help us, Lord Jesus, to put the good things of life in their proper place and to proper use. Keep us from putting our trust in them. Keep our trust in you, who took on our poverty so that we could be sons and daughters of God forever. Amen.


© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.