Friday, 29 October 2010

All Saints - Blessed are the poor, woe to the rich...


Ephesians 1:11-end

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Luke 6:20-31
Blessings and Woes

Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

I love running. I’ve never been able to go very far; about three miles was my limit, perhaps a little less, but I especially used to enjoy running it as fast as I could, and I could just about manage eight minute miles around the hills of Tanworth. Not brilliant, but OK for a man in his forties. So I love running, except that perhaps I should put it in the past tense.

I loved running, not just because of how good it made me feel, and how virtuous I though I was, but also because everyone tells you how good it is for you, and that if you run you will be healthy. Except that wasn’t what happened. What actually happened was that I pulled my Achilles tendons, and that’s not healthy. In fact it was very painful and for a while I could barely even walk.

Sometimes our expectations of a particular activity get turned on their head. I’m not running at the moment, and I may not ever run for pleasure again; I’ll just have to see. Everyone says running is good for you, but it wasn’t good for me.

So what do people say about religion being good for you? I often hear it said that my generation and the one which is following it are the most spiritual generations for years, as we really search for truth. But I think I want to ask us all, not just the younger generations, just what it is we are expecting and why we are searching? I think that the question we may be asking is, when it comes to the spiritual, what’s in it for me?

You see I am horribly afraid that we’ve got it all wrong when we think religion is good for us, that we should be seeing its benefits. I think that might be completely the wrong way around.

It’s what we might call the Principle of Reversal, where the outcome you get is the polar opposite of the one you expect. I expected good health from running and got injury, so what do we expect from what we believe? You see I think that for many people they expect their beliefs to help them to cope with the stresses and strains of life, and indeed that’s what we all do isn’t it?

When we have a sick member of the family, we pray hard for them. We may even ‘phone our friends and ask them to pray as well. After all, isn’t God supposed to be there to help us? Well, yes, in as much as those who are good parents would always feel that they are there for their children. But that’s only half of the story when it comes to families. Being a member of a good family also carries responsibilities, not just rights.

And that is where Luke’s Gospel in general, and today’s Gospel in particular, can make us feel very uncomfortable because, throughout his writings, Luke highlights the way in which the Kingdom of Heaven is founded on the Principle of Reversal, and given that today is All Saints Day, and I take that to include all those who call themselves Christians, we had better take note of what that means for our responsibilities as a part of this family.

In this reading we see first the good news that those who are poor, hungry, in anguish or rejected because of their beliefs will be blessed. This is the upside of the Principle of Reversal. Those who are comfortable find it far too easy to turn a blind eye to the plight of others, but God doesn’t, and he affirms that their eternal future will be very different from their present.

That’s the Good News. However, it doesn’t stop there. The four woes follow on from those whose positions are the exact opposite of the four blessings.
Woe to the rich, the well fed, those filled with mirth and those about whom everyone speaks well. The heavenly Principle of Reversal is not Good News for these people, and that’s why it’s so challenging.

It’s not that we should be aiming to be in sorrow, reviled, poor and hungry. Those are not held up as examples. That is just Jesus giving them hope. But for us it should be very challenging because we are the well off, the comfortable, and those who know how to say and do the right things in public so that people speak well of us.

It challenges us because it shows that being a Christian is not about making an adjustment with our lives so that we don’t feel too uncomfortable with passages like this. No, being a Christian means that we have to live counter-culturally. We have to live and do and say the things that are right, even if they make us unpopular and misunderstood by our neighbours.

Now this is not a message I take lightly. Even the story I began with was challenging. I boast about how I used to be able to run three miles in under twenty five minutes, and complain that it hurts a little now for me to run. So what! It makes a good sermon opener, but it begs the question, how aware of the needs of those who can’t even walk am I; are we?

For those who have been crippled by disease, a story like that illustrates all too clearly that we take our riches and our good health for granted, not realising that for a huge proportion of the world’s population don’t even have access to clean drinking water, let alone running shoes.

Passages like this should not be ignored because they remind us that we cannot simply ignore the fact that, as some of the wealthiest people on the planet, God expects us to look out for the needs of the poorer members of our Family.

How much do we give? Do we give just enough to salve our consciences or do we give until it really has an effect on our lives? You may have heard this phrase before, ‘Live simply so that others might simply live.’ The new car/dishwasher/computer/stereo - did we need that more than a hundred people who could have had cataract operations in the developing world if we’d given the money away?

This is hard stuff to preach, and trust me it was hard to write too, because in telling you this I am having to face up to it more in my own life. Over the last couple of weeks we have been thinking about wrestling with God, and our possessions and bank accounts have to be some place where we wrestle with God, because we are potentially the kind of people that Jesus is saying woe to.

I know it’s not all plain sailing for us. I know that many of us carry deep burdens of responsibility that keep us awake at night crying out to God for help, and here Jesus speaks the words of hope that there will be a better future.

But in terms of our financial well-being, we need to be very aware of the message here, that there is in the Kingdom of God there is a principle of reversal in operation, and we need to live up to our responsibilities.

Today is All Saints. I want to be numbered as one of those Saints, and since you’re reading this, it’s likely you do to. Then we’d better make sure we look out for the needs of those entrusted to us. Amen

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