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The 6th Sunday after Epiphany; Luke 6:17-26 (Jeremiah 17:5-10)

In a Kurdish folk tale1 a person walking along the ocean shore came upon a man sitting on a rock, with a large chest filled with gold coins beside him. Every so often, the man would pick up one of the coins, look at it closely, turn it around in his hand several times, feel it, look at it again. After having thoroughly studied the coin, he would throw it far out into the ocean. He would then sit for a while, obviously thinking, and then pick up another coin, and repeat the process.

The walker, after watching a goodly amount of gold disappear into the ocean, approached the man, and asked, “What is this?”
“A chest of gold,” was the answer.
“Yes, but what are you doing?”
“I am throwing it into the ocean.”
“But, why are you doing that?”
“I am practising non-attachment,” was the calm answer.
“Then why don’t you just dump the whole chest of gold into the ocean all at once?”
“O no, that wouldn’t do,” came the quiet reply. “This attachment I have, it needs to be struggled with a hundred thousand times.”

I think that might be the idea behind the curse and blessing pronounced by Jeremiah the prophet in today’ Old Testament lesson, and the blessings and woes that we just heard in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain). These are two wonderfully complementary passages. Dare I say that Jesus might have had Jeremiah in mind when he gave this sermon, because the words of Jesus are much more easily understood when interpreted in the sense of Jeremiah?

Taken at face value, Jesus blesses poverty, hunger, despair, and persecution, and condemns wealth, fullness, happiness, and good standing in the community. If we take that text at face value, then there is very little good news in it, at least not for us!

It cannot be denied that in the world-wide scheme of things, you and I are extremely fortunate. No matter how badly off we consider ourselves to be, compared to people in other places in the world we are staggeringly rich. No matter how poorly we think we eat, compared to many millions of others, we are satisfied beyond their wildest dreams. No matter how much we feel our life is awful, compared to many in our world, we are revelling in unimaginable happiness. Those are not just abstract statements, they are confirmed daily, by reading a newspaper or watching the television news. When we see our life relative to the lives of those in the war-zones of our planet, the areas of starvation of our world, the countries in which oppression and persecution are a fact of life, zones of recent and not so recent natural disaster, then we must confess that we are very, very fortunate.

Mostly, we manage to dismiss these realizations, by telling ourselves that is the way things are, and there is nothing we can do about it. Perhaps we manage to accept that we are lucky, and feel vaguely sorry that others are unlucky. But in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus challenges utterly these standards we take for granted in our world. Jesus proclaims an alternate moral universe where all values are reversed and a terrifying reality is disclosed to us. Our wealth is shown to be essentially poverty, while what which seems poverty to us is shown to be incredibly rich.

One example of this is the consistency of the reports of those who have visited areas of the world where conditions of life are, in our terms, ghastly. As they speak of their experience, we invariably hear of the prodigal generosity of their hosts even if there is almost nothing available with which to be generous.

Let me just tell you one such story. During my time as a priest of the Diocese of Toronto we had a companion relationship with the Diocese of Seoul in South Korea. Much like our Diocese of Huron’s companion relationship with the Diocese of Amazonia in Brazil, this involved delegations from each diocese visiting the other. I was privileged to participate in hosting our Korean guests, and taking part in showing them around parts of the diocese. A colleague and good friend was part of the first delegation from Toronto to Seoul, and they too were shown around. One visit was to a leper colony – yes, this dread disease is still present in parts of our world, and its victims are still shunned. In a remote, very isolated part of south Korea, perhaps a hundred sufferers from Hansen’s Disease and their families had built a small village, and were eking out a dismal existence by growing vegetables and selling their surplus, and raising a few chickens and selling the eggs. In time they had built an Anglican church and asked the Bishop of Seoul for a priest. A priest was provided, partially paid for by funds from our Canadian Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, hence the invitation to the Canadians. After touring the village, and worshipping in the church, decorated with hangings and vestments labouriously made by leprous hands, the Canadians were invited for lunch.

Lunch was one boiled egg and one can of Coca Cola each, but only for the Canadians. There were apologies for the sparsity of the fare, but the eggs were all they had, after selling about a month’s supply of them to buy the Coke, because they had heard that Canadians loved Coke. It became clear to these Canadians that this village had given up a month’s income to give them lunch, only them! My friend told me it was the hardest egg and can of Coke that they had ever had to eat and drink!

In the scale of things, such generosity is overwhelming. Counting everyone regularly here, let’s say we are around a 100 individuals: it would be inconceivable that we would need to give up all of our collective earnings for a month in order to give a dozen visitors lunch, with none for us. It is more inconceivable that we would actually do so! We cannot begin to compete with such openness with worldly goods! Which is why, on the surface, the teachings of Christ in today’s Gospel do not sound like very good news for us.
That is why we also need to read Jeremiah.

The prophet makes it clear that it is not relative status that is important, it is the direction of our hearts. Cursed is the heart that turns from the Lord and relies on itself and on worldly things. Blessed is the heart that looks to the Lord in hope, whose trust is in the Lord, indeed, whose trust, whose only source of strength, is the Lord. It is not so much who we are, what we have, or how we feel that is the crucial thing; it is where our ultimate values are that counts.

Reading the words of Jesus in the light of the words of Jeremiah the prophet, it becomes clear that our Lord is not saying that affluence and comfort and success are of themselves evil. Our Lord points to our goods, our seeming high achievement, comfort, success, self-satisfaction; and demands that we must be accountable for them. Our Lord demands that there be sharing, and declares there will be an accounting for how we use and distribute such possessions. In fact, taking the Bible as a whole, we probably realize that we are not so much to think of such things as possessions, but as gifts received, gifts to be responsibly used, and gifts to be given to others, again and again.

In reality, Jesus, in this version of the Sermon on the Mount, is doing nothing more than recalling us to the law of love; love of others as much as we love ourselves, and as much as we have been loved by God. There is nothing wrong with loving ourselves, and enjoying the life and goodness that has been given to us, so long as that does not become our only love. It is the direction of our heart that matters, it is the ultimate hope for which we live that counts.

Let me give the almost last word to C.S. Lewis;

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and probably be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable … The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.2

There’s the risk, the challenge, and the promise of love, and following the words of Christ.

Perhaps it’s time again to take, feel, study, turn over another gold coin, whatever that might be for us, take a good, hard, last look at it, and throw it, maybe far out into the ocean, or just maybe to someone who needs it more than we do.

     1 retold by Manocher Movlai, Walking into the Sun, California Health Publications, 1991, p. 19
     2 C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1960, p. 168 (other editions available)

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller.