This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What Makes for Peace.

Luke 19:29-48. 
            Jesus is now on the Mount of Olives, a hill across the Kidron Valley to the east of Jerusalem.  He has been walking in Galilee, through Samaria, and now in Judea, for 3 years.  We don’t see him riding any animal until now, at the last leg of his journey.
            Here near the end of his ministry, Jesus enlists a colt, probably a donkey: the same species of animal that tradition says carried his pregnant mother to Bethlehem, witnessed his birth in the stable, and bore him as an infant to Egypt.  Riding a donkey represents humility, especially when compared with the war-horse that would have carried triumphant military leaders.  I am old enough to remember the funeral procession of Martin Luther King in 1968, his casket on a wooden cart drawn through the streets of Atlanta by 2 donkeys.
            He sends 2 of his disciples ahead to borrow a colt, one “that has never been ridden,” for this purpose.  If anyone asks them why they are taking the colt, the disciples are to say, “The Lord needs it.”
            The fact that it had not yet been ridden also tells us that it was not yet completely broken, tamed, domesticated.  Maybe we are to understand that the one who bears the Word of God best is the one who is not yet jaded, corrupted, or otherwise preconditioned by previous experience.  Maybe that’s a kind of purity of heart that is able to respond to Jesus directly and immediately, not assuming we know how this is supposed to go, not setting out with our own expectations an agenda, but just going where the Lord steers us.
            Maybe that’s who the Lord needs: because Jesus is doing something unprecedented, he wanted his mount to be a beginner as well.  The prophet Isaiah talks about how God is “doing a new thing.”  I wonder if the whole Christian adventure has to be a new thing for us all the time.  Our faith can’t ever “get old,” as we say.  We always have to aspire to the innocent mind of one for whom bearing the Word is an exciting, new adventure.
            Maybe there are important times when the Lord doesn’t need highly-trained, experienced, expert professionals, who think they know exactly where and how to bear the Word into the world.  Maybe those folks will imagine they know better where Jesus or the church should be going, and will try and take the safer route, not the risky highway into a city full of powerful enemies.    
            Maybe it’s the people who haven’t a clue, and find themselves thrown into a new and unfamiliar service, whom the Lord needs.  I know people who were thrown almost accidentally into service at a food bank or a homeless shelter or a jail, to whom it occurred that, far from their previous expectations, this work is the way the Lord was calling them to bear the Word of grace and love into the world.

            I suspect Jesus is acting in conscious fulfillment of a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, where the king enters the holy city riding on a young donkey.  So Jesus, who is acutely conscious of his identity as the Messiah, also sits on a donkey.  His disciples lay their cloaks on its back, and help Jesus get on as well.  And they start the descent down the road, into the valley, towards the holy city.
            Now, remember that this is only a few days before Passover.  There would have been a lot of people making their way along the road to Jerusalem.  Jesus’ disciples would have been part of a much larger throng of pilgrims.               
            As he rides along, some people start spreading their cloaks on the road ahead of him, which was a way of showing honor, kind of like our “red carpet treatment” today.  And his disciples begin to sing words from Psalm 118, which were probably sung for any pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for Passover.  We sing them ourselves, at most Communion services: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  But the disciples, picking up Jesus’ cue, add a loaded reference to “the king.”  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” the exclaim. 
            This apparently slight amendment actually changes the character of what is happening here.  Calling Jesus a “king” turns this whole procession from a religious event to a political one.  Once that happens, everything changes.  The stakes get much higher.
            There are some Pharisees among the throng of pilgrims going to Jerusalem; maybe some of them had been tailing Jesus since Galilee.  This “king” reference makes them nervous.  They know that proclaiming a new king is a good way to start a riot and bring in Roman soldiers.  It is, in fact, treason, and punishable by death, to assert any king other than the ones in power.
            They complain to Jesus.  Maybe they are even, as fellow Jews, warning him, about this.  He should get his supporters to stop with the “king” language, which could get them all killed.
            But Jesus doesn’t stop them.  In fact, he says that if his disciples were silent, the very stones would cry out.  He might mean that the rocks would burst into song… or he could be saying that it is better for them to sing, because if they don’t sing, some might make the rocks “sing” by throwing them. 
            This is the last we hear of the Pharisees in this gospel.  For all their arguments and frustration with Jesus, they are apparently not part of the Temple establishment that engineers Jesus death.

            Jesus knows what he is about at this point, and getting on the bad side of the authorities is part of his plan.  When his disciples call him a king, Jesus intends that this provoke a reaction from the authorities.
            So, while everyone else is singing, chanting, or yelling, mostly in celebration of the coming Passover and of Jesus, Jesus himself starts to… cry!  He cries in bitter grief because he has a vision of the city’s future, and it isn’t pleasant.  In fact, he perceives that history will repeat itself.  Remembering passages from the prophets depicting the siege and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians almost 600 years earlier, Jesus sees that this is about to happen again.
            “The days will come upon you,” he mourns, talking to the walls of the city looming before him, “when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another.”  This is what happened when the Babylonians conquered the city, and it happens again about 40 years after Jesus says this, when the Romans lay siege to Jerusalem and completely demolish it.
            When this happens, Jesus’ disciples remember that Jesus predicted it.  The Romans will destroy all but 2 of Judaism’s many sects, and those are the two represented in this story: the Pharisees, who were the forebears of the Judaism we know today, and the followers of Jesus the Messiah, who were eventually called Christians.
            Jesus says that this destruction happens because the city does not recognize “on this day” the things that make for peace.  In other words, it does not recognize him. 
            “Peace” is mentioned 12 times in Luke, at very significant places.  It is clear that establishing God’s shalom is an important aspect of Jesus’ ministry.  More than the absence of warfare or violence, peace is a comprehensive regime of justice, righteousness, wholeness, inclusion, and well-being, extending through society and creation.
            Jesus comes in humility and gentleness, preceded by his reputation as a healer, exorcist, teacher, preacher, and community organizer.  He comes to fulfill the Torah and the prophets.  He comes to demonstrate God’s true nature as love, which he will do when he gives his life as a sacrifice, reconciling creation to the Creator, and creatures to each other.
            Because we do not recognize this visitation, because we don’t comprehend that God is love, we remain mired in our blindness and sin, and draw down the destructive consequences of our disobedience upon ourselves.
            When he passes through the archway and into the crowded city, Jesus proceeds straight to the Temple.  There he consciously acts out the prophecy of Malachi about purifying Temple worship.  He, in the only real display of anger and violence in his whole career, physically drives out the commercial elements, the merchants, the bankers, from the Temple.
            The Lord famously has no patience with an economic regime that is stacked against the poor.  And “the poor” was almost everybody except a tiny very wealthy minority.  What patience he does have is exhausted when he sees ordinary Israelites being exploited when they come to worship God. 
            The Torah is intended by God to foster economic equality; but here, it is twisted into yet another way for the rich to soak everyone else.  On top of low wages, high taxes, high prices and rents, and high interest rates, all of which basically mean that working people are all but slaves of the elite, Jesus is enraged to find that this extractive system infects even the place where God is worshiped. 
            In chapter 16 Jesus pronounces that people cannot serve both God and wealth, that these two are so diametrically opposed that we may only serve one or the other.  To serve either one is to categorically reject the other.  Earlier in chapter 19 we see Jesus defining “salvation” as when Zacchaeus gets out of an exploitative, market-based business, and makes amends and restitution for what he had done.
            For Jesus, having this market in the Temple itself, is a contradiction and an abomination.  To serve God is to obey God, not the rules of the market or commerce, which are always stacked against the poor and always exacerbate inequality.
            The Temple was the center of the Jerusalem economy.  It was a magnificent structure that attracted tourists from all over the Empire.  And all Jews were supposed to worship there three times a year.  The trade in sacrificial animals and in exchanging currency was huge.  Worship had become a big, and gory, business.             
            Merchants were making a profit off of people’s sacrifices.  And Jesus wants no part of it.  Serving God apparently means rejecting the market, or at least the market’s invasion into the people’s spiritual life.  So he commits the one overt act that may have been the thing that finally got him arrested and executed.
            About 20 years earlier, Jesus was also in the Temple at Passover.  He was 12 years old.  His parents found him listening to the teachers and asking them questions.  Now, he is the teacher.  And the people who hear him, most of them, listen intently and breathlessly to what they are hearing.
            It is “the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people” whom Jesus has now offended, having threatened their cash cow, and done so during the dangerous time of Passover.  They start seeking a way to kill him.  In less than a week, Jesus will be dead.
            That is the week we now commemorate.  During these days, try to cultivate a beginner’s mind; try to set aside everything we think we know and let the Word come to us afresh.  Like that young donkey, listen and be ready to be led to do something new.  Be ready to carry that Word into the city, in the face of hostile powers, for the sake of love.
            And let us examine our self, our body, which is a Temple; and not just our physical body but also the body of disciples of which we are a part, this somewhat larger Temple, where God dwells… and drive out the mercenary, selfish, profit-seeking, corrupting spirit that may have invaded and set up shop.  Remembering Psalm 119:36, “Turn my heart to your decrees and not to selfish gain.”  Remembering that it is not what we get, and keep for ourselves that is important in this life, but what we allow to flow through us from God into the world that makes all the difference.
            This week we remember and celebrate how God’s life and love flowed into our world in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  May God bless all of us as we journey through these days.             

Getting the Log Out.

Luke 6:37-49

            Jesus continues teaching his disciples.  And he continues depicting an upside-down, reversed world, based on his command to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  In other words, his disciples are supposed to act like God.  
            But the God they are supposed to act like is not a vindictive, punishing, retributive, condemning deity, always scrutinizing our behavior, ready to zap us when we mess up.  Jesus doesn’t seem to know much about that god.  The God that Jesus knows is all about mercy, healing, freedom, and justice.
            As far as the bad things that happen to people, Jesus appears more willing to attribute that to the fact that people do everything they can to resist God’s mercy, healing, freedom, and justice.  Thereby they create friction and stress in the system which can even result in various kinds of disasters, personal, political, economic, and ecological.
            But for Jesus, the point is that if we act like God acts we will receive what God gives.  That is, as he says here, if we do not judge or condemn others, we will not be condemned ourselves.  If we forgive others, we will be forgiven ourselves.  What we give in this life is what we get back.  This sounds something like what some Asian religions call karma.
            At the same time, Jesus is not saying that if you are nice to people they will be nice to you.  Sometimes that works, but a lot of the time, as we all know, it doesn’t.  Jesus is not an idiot; he is aware that good people suffer.  What he is saying has to do not with strategies to get out of people the kind of response we want from them.  His advice has to do with our relationship with God. 
            It is not that if we don’t judge others they won’t judge us; it is that if we don’t judge others God will not judge or condemn us.  He is presenting us with a way of life that is concerned exclusively with doing what is right in God’s eyes.  Influencing other people is not a concern for him.  Our relationship with God, which is one of trust and obedience, is all that matters.
            So if the strategy of not judging, of forgiving, and giving generously do not result in getting people to act that way with you, that is not a surprise to Jesus.  It is in fact expected.  That doesn’t mean this approach didn’t “work.”  We have to change our criteria for deciding what “works.”
            When we judge people we condemn ourselves; our anger and our hatred does not harm the person we are angry with or hate.  But it does corrode and rot and otherwise erode our own souls.  To condemn others is to condemn ourselves to an existence of sour, nasty, small-minded, hyper-critical, self-stabbing rage.  To refuse to forgive others means we are not released from anger that infects us.  When we are ungenerous we kind of implode and withdraw into a greedy, avaricious, tightly closed, and self-suffocating knot.  We are the ones who suffer.

            Then Jesus reminds the disciples that this kind of liberated life is not something we can do on our own.  On our own we are at best the blind leading the blind.  Disciples need a teacher, someone who has advanced considerably farther along the path to wholeness and vision.  A teacher is a guide who can see where the disciple can’t. 
            It makes a difference when we learn forgiveness from someone who has actually lived the forgiving life, who knows how difficult it is, who has navigated the pitfalls and challenges, who has mastered the temptations, who has paid their dues. 
            Then he tells this illustrative, grotesquely hyperbolic little parable about the person with a log in their eye criticizing someone for the speck in their eye.  He is saying, “Tend first to yourself.  Don’t worry about the imperfections and shortcomings of others until you have fully addressed your own shortcomings and imperfections.”  Indeed, often our own are wildly more severe… which is why we deny or repress them, and invest so much earnest energy in trying to fix other people.
            But we all approach the world with a veritable log in our eye.  It is a bizarre image, kind of like how we talk about “the elephant in the room.”  It’s the huge thing that everybody sees, but that we decide to ignore and pretend isn’t there at all.
            The log in our eye is the fact that our perceptions, reasoning, memories, feelings, and experiences are all inherently clouded, conditioned, twisted, and distorted by what we call sin.  We cannot see things as they truly are because our ego, the strategies we use to get what we need and want, and the fear that we won’t, block us.  We see everything through a lens clouded by our own fear, expectations, self-image, and personal narrative.  Until we get rid of that, we are of little use to anyone, least of all ourselves.
            It is the log in our eye that causes us to think that judging and condemning work as life-strategies.  I may even convince myself that I am helping you by criticizing you, condemning you, refusing to forgive you, and abstaining from giving you what you need.  We may even like to call it “tough love;” although that’s not what we call it when someone is doing it to us. 
            Criticizing, rejecting, denying, and binding others only appears to be effective, from the perspective of a log-blinded person.  But in reality these approaches don’t help anyone else, and they devastate and strangle our souls.

            The log-blinded person, the person who continues to have their actions shaped by condemnation, retribution, and selfish avarice, Jesus says, has acquired a “treasure” of sorts in their heart that is evil.  I’m not sure what an “evil treasure” would look like, perhaps a vault full of tools of violence, exploitation, injustice, greed, and death.  They thus relate to the rich and popular people in verses 24 through 26, those who have received their reward in what profit they managed to squeeze out of the earth and people during their mortal existence. 
            What they have “gained” really is alienation and separation from God and from themselves.  Investing from this nasty treasure, they wreak havoc and violence in the world.  Jesus suggests they are like bad trees, invasive species perhaps that suck up the resources of the earth and drop poison, inedible fruit.  The bad tree is all about itself.  It gives nothing to others.
            But the person who has had an ocular log-ectomy, that is, someone who has had the log removed from their eye and who can now see clearly, lives in the real world, God’s world; that is, they live according to God’s values of mercy, forgiveness, healing, and generosity.  Thus they build up a good treasure in their hearts of hope, joy, blessing, love, and peace.  Jesus compares this person favorably to a productive fruit tree.  A good fruit tree gives away what it has.  That’s what makes it good.
            We’re not going to pick delicious figs or juicy grapes from a thorn or bramble bush.  And we’re not going to see selfless generosity from a person with the unwelcoming, abrasive, prickly, and sharp personality of a sticker-bush.  Not only do they have that log still sticking out of their eye, but they have found a way to hit you with it. 
            Jesus forces us to ask ourselves: Who are we really?  And he compels us to face the very real possibility that our fruit is, well, not so good.  He is like the judge at the 4H fair carefully assessing the produce of the contestants, and you’re standing there behind a table full of ivy, holly, and nightshade berries, all of which are lethal.  What if our fruits, that is, our actions, are permeated by poisonous self-interest, greed, violence, anger, fear, and hatred?
            Actual trees are what they are, and God loves them all.  But humans?  God loves us too, but Humans can change.  A “bramble bush” person can become a “fruitful grape vine” person.  We can change the kind of fruit we produce.  But we can’t do it by somehow engineering new fruit, or by deliberately trying to act differently.

            We can only change if our heart changes.  Instead of storing up the sour nutrients of sin, instead of taking from the earth and storing and hoarding resources, keeping them for ourselves, our treasure becomes the goodness of God flowing through us, and manifesting in the fruit we produce, that is: actions of blessing and peace, mercy and freedom.
            Jesus says that the person who comes to him, hears his words, and acts on them, is like a man who built his house securely with a foundation drilled deep into the bedrock.  No flood is powerful enough to dislodge it.
            First, we have to come to him.  Coming to him implicitly means turning our backs on “the-world-as-we-know it,” the distorted picture of the world that we get when our eye has a log sticking out of it.  In other words, we have to realize and admit our blindness.  These early chapters in Luke have featured many people coming to Jesus for healing.  They know they have a problem and they trust in him to restore them to wholeness.  We have to come to One who can see, a teacher.  In the 12-steps he is called the “higher power.”
            Second, he says, we have to hear his words.  He’s not just blowing smoke here.  Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the very Word by which the whole universe was spoken into existence when God said “Let there be…” and there was.  So when Jesus says something, when he gives us a commandment, it is not practical advice, or the latest fashion, or even religious doctrine.  It is a revelation of the very structure and coherence of the universe itself.
            Mercy, love, peace, freedom, justice, joy, healing… these are not just ways to cope with the world, they are the world.  They are the energy and principles upon which creation and life itself is built.  Jesus’ commandments are the bedrock into which we sink our foundation.  They reflect and express what is true and real.  They are literally the way of life.
            In other words, Jesus, the Word of the Creator himself, is saying that the real world is not some Darwinian horror of the survival of the fittest, a dog-eat-dog arena of pitiless brutality where only the strongest and most violent individuals survive.  That is the world concocted by human sinfulness, and then projected by log-blinded people onto nature, and utilized by the rich and powerful to justify their wealth and power.
            Jesus is saying that what the world is really about is cooperation, mutuality, community, and a coherent, integrated system in which life thrives, and where human beings, as the vanguard of that system, consciously know and love the One who created it all.

            Third, he says, we have to act on his words.  The acting is the key.  If we just come and hear him we will still not have riveted ourselves to the bedrock.  We will still be subject to getting washed away by the flooding river.
            It is not enough to hear or even talk about being merciful.  We have to be merciful; we have to act mercifully.  Our lives have to be thoroughly characterized by the values and practices Jesus advocates in this sermon, and in his whole ministry.
            It’s about being an agent of Christ’s truth in the world, which is to say a witness to the God who creates and sustains everything in love.  This means we do not judge or condemn, but forgive, release, and give of what we have received to others.  It means that we become a little tear in the dense fabric of the world of delusion and violence, fear and anger, shame and hatred, and through that hole, the pure light of God shines into people’s lives. 
            Through us, people experience the truth of God’s love for the whole world, by our mercy, forgiveness, healing, acceptance, liberation, peace, and joy.  Through us, in our trust and obedience of him, people experience Jesus Christ, the living God.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Becoming Poor.

Luke 6:17-36

            Having appointed 12 disciples as apostles, Jesus leads them back down the mountain to the lowlands which symbolize the mundane, ordinary existence we all lead, contrasted with the exalted, mountaintop where transcendent, mystical, unitive experiences happen.  Luke repeats his point about how God, in Jesus, comes down to us, to our level, into our experience.  The real action is down here in everyday life with everyday people who have everyday problems.
            Down here in the lowlands is a world of need and hurt and bondage.  Jesus is now attracting broken people from miles around, both to hear him and be healed by him.  These visible and tangible demonstrations of healing and exorcism continually authenticate and validate Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.  What Jesus does in bringing peace and freedom to people in their minds and bodies, is almost like a credentialing device, giving backing to what he will say in words.  Jesus Christ is not a mere preacher; he is a doer of the Word even before he is a speaker of it.
            Luke flatly tells us that Jesus heals them all.  No exceptions.  It is a characteristic of Jesus’ approach that if you came to him you got healed.  The only thing that matters to Jesus is that people are hurting.  Other than that, he heals unconditionally.  Nothing else matters.  The race, sex, nationality, language, citizenship, line of work or employment status, religion, theology, politics, economic or social level of someone who comes to him for healing doesn’t matter to Jesus.  Neither does their moral life or how they happened to get sick.  Most of them trust him, but sometimes it’s other people’s trust in him that is enough.  Jesus doesn’t ask any questions beyond something like, “Do you want to be made well?”
            When he has healed as many as are there, he sits down to teach.  He looks “up” at his disciples and begins speaking.
            “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.”  In addressing his disciples he is addressing people who were “poor” on two accounts.  First, most of them were peasants to begin with, people scraping a subsistence living out of the soil or hauling fish out of the lake.  They had no political power and were mostly in debt their whole lives.  Second, they had all given up what little they had in order to follow Jesus.
            Now, it is easy for some of us affluent suburbanites to have an overly romantic and sentimental view of “the poor,” especially when we are so insulated that our primary experience of poor people is when Jesus talks about them in the Bible.  But in real life not only are poor people subject to all the sins of humanity, but the crushing oppression of actual poverty can add bitterness, anger, defeatism, cynicism, selfishness, duplicity, criminality, violence, and a lot of other bad qualities to people.
            Therefore many commentators over the centuries have insisted that Jesus can’t mean that one’s economic status alone is a free ticket to God’s Kingdom.  Surely Jesus can’t mean that bad poor people get in and good rich people don’t.

            And yet, Jesus says what he says.  The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded and defamed, he blesses.  The rich, the satiated, those who laugh now, and those with good reputations he curses.  So his conditions and prerequisites for entry into God’s Kingdom appear to be the same as for healing: there are none except need.  The Kingdom of God is apparently not a reward for good behavior.  It is a simple turning upside-down of the social order.  The first will be last and the last will be first.  He makes no mention of any other moral evaluation.
            This might be somewhat disturbing, especially for those of us who believe that the well-being of society requires us to incentivize good behavior.  Because here it appears that our actions, good or bad, don’t matter.  What matters is how much stuff we have.
            But who is Jesus addressing here?  Luke says he is speaking to “his disciples.”  When he says “you who are poor,” he is not talking to the whole crowd, but to those who have become his followers.  So it could be argued that it is not all the economically challenged people in the world who receive this blessing; but Jesus is addressing his disciples.  They are the ones who are “poor,” “hungry,” weeping, and ostracized.  They are the ones warned against gaining riches and popularity.
            This message of reversal should not come as a complete surprise to us at this point.  Luke has been telling us all along that this is what Jesus’ ministry is going to be about, starting from his mother’s hymn when he is in the womb.  He announces it in Nazareth, too. 
            In fact all his healings have witnessed to this same agenda: the weak are made strong, the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are made well, the possessed are released, the lepers are cleansed.  Should we be shocked that Jesus means this economically, emotionally, and socially as well?  The hungry are filled, the weeping laugh, and vice-versa?  The poor receive a kingdom?
            Should we be surprised that Jesus goes on to say that this reversal applies as well to how we react to stresses and demands and opportunities?  That he would have people doing exactly the opposite of what was normal and expected?  Exactly the opposite of what standard acquisitive, extractive, self-centeredness always requires?  Loving enemies, turning the other cheek, giving to those who ask and not resisting even theft?  Making a point of lending to those least likely to repay?

            It appears that he wants his disciples to witness to a reversed and upside-down contrarian lifestyle.  He wants them to live in a kind of “opposite-land” in which people deliberately go radically against the grain of normality and expectations.  Some would say it is practically a kind of suicide cult in which people deliberately live in a way that is likely to get them killed.  Any society that tried to live this way would collapse, they say.  And of course, Jesus did get killed, so they rest their case.
            One of the problems in interpreting passages like this is that terms like “poor” and “rich,” “hungry” and “full” are somewhat relative.  Compared to a CEO of a major corporation, or a Hedge Fund Manager, I am poor.  Compared to the rest of the people on the planet, 5 billion or so of whom languish in deep poverty, I am wildly wealthy.  Plus, our situations change over time; a wealthy person today might lose it all tomorrow.  And we present ourselves as poor or rich depending on whether we are trying to qualify for a loan, or for some kind of financial aid.
            In order to cut through the relativity, we understand that we don’t compare ourselves to each other.  If we compare ourselves to God, to whom the whole creation belongs, we are unimaginably poor.  But the way we know God is through Jesus Christ, who made a point of owning practically nothing.  Compared to him we’re all rich.
            But look at that for a minute.  The whole world belongs to God, yet when God comes into human life, it happens to a homeless couple in a barn.  Remember Paul’s famous hymn in Philippians: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”  In Jesus Christ, God takes on poverty intentionally.  God renounces the wealth, power, and majesty, and instead becomes poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled.
            But he doesn’t empty himself into nothing.  Rather, his poverty makes others rich in the sense that God’s power flows through him into the world.  In Christ, God empties God’s self into the world.  We see this in the healings, the exorcisms, and in Jesus’ empowerment of people who had been powerless. 
            So Jesus is not poor because he has nothing; he is God, he has everything!  He is poor because what he has he makes a point of giving away. 

            All of us are both poor and rich, depending on the perspective, context, and timing.  God has made us rich by giving us such awesome resources and gifts, this whole amazing, abundant planet; all the nearly infinite value of having minds and hearts and bodies; friendship, beauty, love…. 
            If Jesus is our example, though, we only truly have those riches when we give them away.  Jesus appears to be poor because the fullness of God’s grace is flowing through him so perfectly, none of it does he keep for himself.  He doesn’t keep back even what would be required to have a better garment, or a decent house.  He keeps almost nothing back; through him God’s grace pours into the world like sunlight.  Uninhibited.  Unconstricted.  Unblocked and unhindered.  Unconditionally. 
            But when we try and hoard, store up, save, own, and keep for ourselves these riches, that is when we bring upon ourselves God’s condemnation, these ominous “woes” that Jesus pronounces.  When we attach self-serving conditions to the receipt of God’s gifts, when we devise economies that intentionally richly reward some and take away what little others have, then, well, woe to you.
            And woe to us, because this is exactly the world we have concocted.  Does God intend for 300 people in Europe and North America to have the same income as the bottom 4.7 billion people on the earth?  Does God intend for 22.4% of children in America to go to bed hungry?  Does God intend 1% of the people in this country to control 43% of its wealth?  No.  We intend that.  Trickle down?  I don’t think so.
            There is more than enough for everyone to have what they need and more.  But it has to flow.  It has to be shared.  Jesus’ example is if you need something you get it.  It’s very simple and uncomplicated.  And it’s the hardest thing in the world.  It requires us to be selfless.  It requires us to empty ourselves of ourselves, and instead start thinking about the good of all. 
            It means thinking and acting in God’s upside-down way, where what we seek is the balance and equality that God intends in the system (which we heard about from Deuteronomy 15 earlier and which is even more strikingly spelled out in Leviticus 25… I’m just saying).  According to God’s way we pour the resources into where the need is, instead of where we will get the most return.  Jesus reminds us that even sinners know how to make a profit for themselves.  What earthly good is that?    
            Jesus puts it succinctly when he says it’s about doing to others who are in need as we would have others do for us, when we are in need.  All of his examples are about how to get resources from people who have them to people who don’t. 

            And remember that he is talking to his disciples, people who had given up what little they had, and have chosen to trust in him instead.  In chapter 14 Jesus will flatly state: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
            That’s to whom the Kingdom of God belongs.  Those who have made themselves empty, clear conduits through whom God’s grace in all its forms can freely pass.  As soon as they start collecting some of it for themselves, they’re out.  But theirs is the Kingdom of God who say: I must become and even have nothing, so that God’s love in Jesus Christ may flow through me to where it is most needed.
            Jesus sums up the first half of his sermon with the injunction to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  By “your Father,” of course, he means God.  The fact that we are alive at all is because of God’s mercy.  God is continually holding off the consequences of our actions, and God does this for as long as possible.  And Jesus Christ perfectly expresses God’s mercy in his unconditional grace to all of us, especially those at the bottom.
            In the end, there is a direct relationship between those who receive mercy and those who show mercy to others.  They are the same.  God gives mercy to all; but only those who pass it on to others receive it themselves.  Those who do not, like the rich man in chapter 12 who had his barns full of stored grain, or like yet another rich man in chapter 16 who stepped over a poor man every day without helping him, have cut themselves off from God’s mercy.  Hence the woes.
            The Kingdom of God belongs to the poor.  Those who know they have nothing, have lots of room for God.  Disciples of Jesus Christ are those who seek to have, possess, or own nothing that will get in the way of the flow of God’s blessings into the world through them.  They are forgiven, that is to say, they have been released from what held them down, and they are about releasing others as well.
            We need to be the people Jesus is addressing here.  We need at least to be on the journey of becoming the people Jesus is addressing here.  May we have the openness, the freedom, the hunger, the longing, and even the poverty that we may not get in the way of the tremendous blessing and abundance that God is bringing into the world.  May we have nothing that prevents us from living according to Jesus’ values of reversal.  And may we know God’s infinite mercy because that mercy flows through is in the mercy, the healing, the liberation, the welcome we show to everyone.