First Reading: Jer 17:5-10
Second Reading: 1 Cor 15:12-20
Gospel: Luke 6:17-26
Lectionary readings are like beads threaded on a cord, each separate but linked together by a common thread. What holds us together is that we are a story-people and daily, weekly we return to the stories about which our faith is woven. Although the ‘story’ of God is multi-layered, complex, infinite as the universe, the 3 readings we have this morning provoke us to think laterally and engage with multiple images that will find their connection within us. So we come to these readings not expecting that they simply speak to us but that they will require us to work with them, reflect and ponder.
Take the first bead on the thread, the reading from Jeremiah. It begins with a salutary warning:
Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
This is the trouble with prophets isn’t it? They always provide us with another way of seeing the world and confront us with things that I suspect we’d really prefer not to have drawn to our attention and, worse still, make a decision on. There is something here in Jeremiah that seems to cut right against the grain of our humanity and our way of being in the world. Do we trust ‘mere mortals’? Think about it: we certainly invest a lot of our energies and affections in families and friends; at every election for council or government we invest trust and responsibility. Is ‘mere flesh’ our strength? Well, consider the amount of energy given to the cult of physical fitness and the reverence and admiration that is accorded to wealth and property – and I note here the fearfulness of the government to tax property, regardless of what the tax review has advised. If we place our trust and our heart in humans and in material things, the prophet warns us that we will turn our hearts from God and so turn from the source of our life and joy - in a word we will be cursed, not by God but by our loss of sight and connection with that which sustains all that is.
Bead 2, Paul on the resurrection: ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?’ Paul walks along the same high wire as Jeremiah: where human common sense urges trust in assets and shakes its head at the thought of a resurrection, prophet and apostle point to God and speak out of their experience of God. Paul’s whole gospel is the gospel of the risen Jesus, an encounter testified to by the early church, and proclaimed by the apostles; an encounter Paul himself somehow experienced on the road to Damascus and never forgot. In this sentence Paul typically confronts and challenges how we see the world: if we believe in the risen Christ, how can we live and speak as if our life in this world is all there is? Let’s push this further and paraphrase it a little more: if we believe in the risen Christ, how can we foreclose or limit the possibilities and modes of being that there may be in the universe?
Now, bead 3, the gospel: extraordinary and perplexing as it is. Here Luke crunches material he shares with Matthew into a spare 30 or so verses. The man of letters, the author, sets the scene and the emphasis is on the crowd and their expectations of him: they all want help, healing and wholeness. There is not much information, it is left to us to imagine the crowd and how the people were – how desperate, how anxious.
We can understand or at least begin to imagine desperation. We may have had the experience ourselves. We are familiar with the desperation of others, at least through TV – we have seen the despair and resignation in Haiti, we have seen the desperate job searching of the 1500 who queued for job application in the new supermarket in South Auckland.
But Luke adds one explanatory comment, a brief gloss to his description: ‘all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them’. Touch of course to us as humans is the ultimate reassurance: we caress the ones we love, we touch the thing we are making, and we test the reality of what we see. Touch is one of the gates of the soul, and what Jeremiah called ‘mere flesh’ is in fact the most common means for testing the substance of this world. It should be no surprise to us then that the sceptical Thomas wanted to touch to test the reality of the risen Christ in that upper room after Easter.
Yet for these desperate people, for these ‘touch-hungry’ people Jesus’, beatitudes seem slightly shocking. Jesus insists that their troubles, their conditions of limitation are, to be seen not as afflictions but as blessings – because such things are a shield from the illusion of self-sufficiency that material power and assets can provide. This is a troubling thought when it first flickers through the mind. It seems to justify not doing anything about poverty or being concerned about social justice; it seems to support the most appalling ‘other-worldly’ type of thinking.
Yet I think in these beatitudes we see Jesus at his most deliberately contentious, provocative and challenging. He heals, he feeds, he makes whole: no one suggests he does not do these things – but with that behind him – he challenges those who have come to him to see the world and their circumstances (and God!) very differently. It was the romantic poet and painter William Blake who said ‘If only the doors of perception were cleansed, then we would see everything as it is – infinite’. Learning to see things as they really are ...to 'cleanse the doors of perception' ... that is our task and our calling on this journey of faith.