Epiphany 6C

Jeremiah 17:5-10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan


Kate and I had an interesting conversation the other day about our generation gap.  She pointed out a phenomenon that is a difference between my generation and hers and I have to say, she was spot on!

We were taking her car to get serviced so we were driving two cars so we could go get some lunch while we waited for the oil change and I was going on and on about which route to take to the garage in Christiansburg.  I mean, it seems to me that it’s shorter and less traffic to take Route 11 when going to something near or just past downtown Christiansburg even though the speed limits might be faster on the interstate and the mileage actually less on Peppers Ferry depending on the final destination and I was repeating this assessment when Kate said she just goes to wherever GPS says to go.

We laughed over lunch about this.  People my age lived in a time before GPS and also a slower, simpler time when discussion of which route to take was interesting to us, different routes kept boredom at bay in our small town, daily commutes, and maybe even paper maps were involved! I remember this begin the main topic of dinner conversation in my home as a teenager.  You know, something like, “Mom, which way did you go to get to the dry cleaners today? Did you go down main street or around behind the high school?”  Around here I suppose that would include the difference between east and west sides and main street or back way or which side of the river the destination is on. Kate may find this topic of conversation boring and “just taking GPS” seems simpler to her but to me GPS is the boring method.

So, it is still the season of Epiphany and we are knee deep in our Sunday morning pondering about recognizing God in Jesus the Christ in all the ways and at all the times in which God manifests God’s self to us.

Now, for a really bad sermon anecdote, I could compare Jesus to Waldo, as in the lovable children's puzzle books with pages and pages of cartoon Waldo in a crowd of people doing interesting and mundane things and the effort it takes to pick him out. “Where’s Jesus?!” Only, Jesus is not wearing a red and white stripped shirt, hat and glasses.  Well, I did say that is a bad example.

Finding Christ in all things does, however, take some effort.  And if we seek him as the wise men did, we must do so patiently, perseveringly and prayerfully.  The best way I have experienced this is through contemplative prayer.  I don’t see how any of us can figure out how to follow the resurrected Lord if we don’t take time to quiet our minds and rest our brains and bodies and focus our attention on Love.  Because, as we know by now from our Presiding Bishop, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” 

So I bring to us this morning some hints about how to seek the Christ.

But first, some cautions or woe’s if you will.

Finding Jesus is not about seeking a personal relationship with him.  Now, this does not mean all of us do not have a personal relationship with Jesus or that a personal relationship with Jesus is not a desirable quest.  It’s just not really what Epiphany is all about.  And it is dangerous to use the concept of a personal relationship with Jesus as a spiritual priority.

If we want to really be lead by God in Christ, we have to learn to see Christ in all persons and in all things and at all times.  Secondly, we have to realize that seeking Christ is a community effort, not something for lone rangers to pursue.

Sound overwhelming?  Well, that’s why we need more prayer time.

Richard Rohr, in his recent writings says a lot about this concept of seeking Christ. In this understanding of what we are seeking, the incarnate God is seen as The Christ, not just Jesus the physical man who walked among us and then resurrected and ascended. This is a bigger-than-us, amazing, love action image of the Christ that sort of pops up in places and ways that always surprise us.  Rohr says that practicing a personal relationship with Jesus is limiting ourselves and frankly, projecting our selves, our wants, our needs and our selfishness onto our image of God in Jesus. It is also a dangerously individual quest that takes away from the community. 

Seeking Christ in all things and people and places and times is more about seeking, as the community of believers, the fruits of the Spirit -  “patience, gentleness, self control, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and love” as Paul says in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23) or the first fruits of the resurrection, as Paul says in today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians.

Richard Rohr puts it this way: “When Jesus Christ calls himself the “Light of the World” (John 8:12), he is not telling us to look just at him, but to look out at life with his all-merciful and non-dualistic eyes. We see him so we can see like him - with the same infinite compassion. When your isolated “I” turns into a connected “we,” you have moved from Jesus to Christ. We no longer have to carry the burden of being a perfect “I” because we are saved “in Christ” and as Christ. Or, as Christians say correctly, but too quickly, at the end of our official prayers: “Through Christ, Our Lord, Amen.”[1]

Now, that’s may sound like some deep theology Rohr is suggesting, but its really simple.  So, let’s just look at the text of these Beatitudes from Luke.

Jesus talks of opposites in this most important of his sermons.  He teaches outside the walls of the temple, outside the walls of the city and outside the walls and ridged-ness of the law itself.  There are so many Christians, especially in our country it seems, who sincerely want to follow Jesus but attempt to follow him by building walls - us and them walls.  These poor souls hear the message of the Beatitudes as an instruction list for the individual.

So that goes something like this: “If I work really hard at being ‘meek, poor in spirit, mournful, peacekeeping and hungry and thirsty for righteousness’ I’ll be right with Jesus and then my life will be good.”

That may seem a bit terse.  After all, a personal relationship with Jesus takes more than just trying to keep these nice attitudes we find in the Beatitudes.

But here’s the catch in today’s Gospel lesson.  This is Luke’s version.  He doesn’t use such nice language as Matthew.  Luke says that the blessed are the poor, the hungry and those who weep.  It’s a much simpler list but no one really wants to strive for just those three things. So we humans complicate it and try to own it.

Then Luke emphasizes the woes. “Woe to those who are not nice,” might be the overly reduced version.  This is where the me-first of the lone ranger Christian’s interpretation breaks down:

"But woe to you who are rich,” . . . “full,” . . . “laughing,” . . . and essentially have a good reputation. Ouch. If that shoe fits, you’re in for some woeful (and not righteous) indignation.  If not now then in the after life, “for you will be hungry”. . . “you will mourn and weep,” . . . and/or you are a “false prophet.”

This is too much for the individual to sort through.

My brother Mike is a Latin teacher so I called him yesterday and asked him to help me understand why they call this passage, in both Matthew and Luke, the Beatitudes.  The word itself, he helped me to understand, means from its Latin root, the quality of being happy. Beatus means happy.  the -tude part is an English suffix, from when the Vulgate was translated into the King James English, that means to be.  This is like the word gratitude: “the quality of being thankful.”

So, the word means “the quality of being happy” and naturally the passage has been interpreted to mean that if we each practice these qualities of being that are on the list of things that will leave us blessed, we will be happy.  The problem with this interpretation is that folks turned it into magical thinking.  Like, “I’ll act like I’m meek, poor in spirit, mournful, peacekeeping and hungry and thirsty for righteousness and maybe Jesus will buy me a Mercedes! Clearly if we find ourselves down this rabbit hole we have missed something!

Jesus was not teaching each disciple how to be happy.  Jesus was teaching the people how to love one another.  The lesson is for the whole community.  It is not a list of things to do to get into heaven or have power over and against your neighbor.

Seeking Christ in all people, in all places at all times works better. Better even than seeking a personal relationship with Jesus.  Seeking the Christ in this way is a way of looking out with the very eyes of God and seeking ways to give of God’s love through us, in spite of us.

I was moved this week to read the blog report of a colleague whose parish was victimized by the Westboro Baptist Church members a couple of weeks ago. Stuart tells the story well of the panic that ran through his large suburban parish when they were informed by the local police two weeks prior to the protestors arrival.  That’s just within the rules.  Westboro has lawyers who set up their protests so that they are sure to get police and media attention.

Stuart had to think quick about how to respond to these haters who apparently chose his parish just because it is Episcopalian and the people of Westboro believe that all Episcopalians are evil. And, well, Stuart’s church is near where the Super Bowl was being played later that day.

Stuart chose to start with prayer.  He is an advocate and teacher of contemplative prayer and has taught me a great deal about prayer through his writings and at least one weekend retreat. I have learned through him and others about the importance of carving out time - lots of time - every day - to sit quietly with God.  Empty the mind, or focus on some scripture or a favorite written prayer or a mantra or sing or something. But we need to spend more time quieting ourselves in order to protect our souls from the daily onslaught of noise and busy-ness.

So, Stuart prayed and then he lead his large congregation to respond with prayer too. They gathered during the weeks ahead and sat in silent prayer.  They gathered early prior to the service that morning to sit in silence.  And, well, then they pealed the tower bells and drowned out the noise of the protesters who stood across the street spewing hatred. 

Stuart figures we should use all the gifts we have in the Episcopal Church.

But they also did this:  They decided to put some action into the mix.  Perhaps because of the media coverage or perhaps because of the stirring to support each other, that particular Sunday morning was going to draw a big crowd.  So they asked everyone to bring non-perishable food for the food pantry and pet supplies for the humane society and both bins were overflowing.

Hate did not out-sound these seekers of Christ that day.

To follow Jesus, to find him in the crowd or to seek answers and guidance does not come best in a stance of personal relationship with Jesus.  At least not a personal relationship that imitates ownership. As in a “my Jesus will protect and provide for me and everyone else can go hang” sort of posture.

Seeking Christ in all people works better.

So, step away from the GPS and let’s look together at our quest to find the Christ in new way, using an old map.  This will mean widening the circle and challenging our ingrained understanding of what it means to be a member of the church.  It will mean traveling along side folks who see things differently. But maybe if we tried to seek Christ as a community, with a shared map, though it may show us multiple routes, maybe if we follow together we will learn from each other and grow toward the one body in Christ that we are called to be.


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019), 36-37.