Sunday, 13 February 2022

Am I blessed, or am I cursed?

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Sunday 13th January 2020, the 3rd before Lent.

There’s a lot about blessing and cursing in today’s readings, isn’t there? And that prompts me to ask myself, ‘Am I blessed or am I cursed?’

In the OT reading, Jeremiah (17:5-10), contrasts blessings for those who trust in God, with curses for those who trust in mere mortals, whose hearts turn away from God. Those who trust in God will flourish. ‘They shall be like a tree planted by water… in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’. But those whose hearts turn away from God will struggle. ‘They shall be like a shrub in the desert… they shall live in parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land’.

In the appointed psalm, Psalm 1, we see the same contrast, between the righteous who shall be ‘like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither’, and the wicked who shall perish.

In the NT reading (Luke 6:17-26), Luke tells us how Jesus came down from the Judaean hills to a level place where a great crowd came to hear him and to be healed by him. Then Jesus begins to teach his disciples in what is traditionally called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’. It is a clear parallel to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s Gospel which is traditionally called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. They may well be recalling one and the same event, although the details remembered by Luke and Matthew differ.

In Luke’s account, Jesus begins the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ by proclaiming four blessings, or beatitudes, and by warning of four corresponding woes. In Matthew, Jesus begins the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ by proclaiming 8 beatitudes. He leaves the corresponding woes unsaid, but perhaps implicit.

Notice that Jesus does not proclaim any curses. It is not in his nature. Woes are not curses - they are warnings. It is we who bring curses on ourselves if we ignore his warnings.

Let us look more closely at Luke’s blessings and woes.

Jesus points to those who are blessed, those who are included in the Kingdom of God. But he also warns others of the consequences of their choices in life. The paired blessings and warnings are:

·         to the poor - and to the rich;

·         to the hungry - and to the ‘full’;

·         to those who weep - and to those who laugh;

·         to those who are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed - and to those held in esteem.

Most of us here in Ireland are rich, we have more than enough to eat, we have happy lives, at least by comparison with the poor of this world. Does that mean that we cannot be included in the Kingdom of God? Surely not. But it matters what we do with our good fortune.

Jesus does not teach us that there can be no blessings for the rich. But he warns those of us who are fortunate that it matters how we respond to the needs of others who aren’t. Woe to us if we do not listen to him!

If I do not use my riches to help those in need and poverty, I bring a curse on myself. If I am so full of myself, and of my own importance, that I trample on those I see as unimportant, I bring a curse on myself. If I am so consumed by my own pleasure that I ignore those who are suffering and in distress, I bring a curse on myself. The curse that I bring on myself is loss of the blessings to be found in God’s Kingdom of justice and peace.

Jesus knew very well that the OT prophets called for social justice.

In his hometown, Nazareth, Luke tells us that Jesus in the synagogue read from the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus knew too that the powers-that-be hate, exclude, revile and defame prophets who speak out, for he experienced that himself. So he warns his disciples that this is what they must expect if they are to follow him.

We have all heard the Beatitudes so many times that we may no longer notice just how shocking and stark Jesus’s teaching is. It completely upends the conventional thinking of the worldly wise. It challenges the world view of those who hate, exclude, revile and defame others - others who are poor or weak, of the wrong gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. In our own time, anyone who stands up in public to proclaim ‘Woe to the rich’, and acts upon it, can expect to be accused of being a communist agitator. Conservative forces of society and state will turn upon them, to hate, exclude, revile and defame them. But if we are true to Jesus, these are the forces that we must be ready to withstand.

It is ultimately up to each one of us individually to answer the question, ‘Am I blessed, or am I cursed’.

But in our human frailty, we will not find the right answer by ourselves, the answer which admits us to God’s kingdom. We need God’s help, and it is right that we should pray for it.

So let me conclude in prayer with this Collect of the Word:

Righteous God,
you challenge the powers that rule this world
and you show favour to the oppressed:
instil in us a true sense of justice,
that we may discern the signs of your kingdom
and strive for right to prevail;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

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