The Rev. Helen Havlik
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 17, 2019
The time after Epiphany has been set aside to think about Jesus’ life and ministry—and the mystery of God become flesh. In the early days, Jesus preached and taught, performed miracles, and called disciples to follow him. In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is still at the beginning of his public ministry. He has chosen disciples and drawn the attention of religious authorities who question some of his practices—like breaking the Sabbath rules. The crowds are pressing in from all parts of Palestine—even from gentile territory—and Jesus continues to respond to their needs and to teach his disciples about what living a godly life means. I’m reading from Luke, Ch. 6, beginning with vs. 17. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
A couple of years after I came back to Michigan, I received notice of the passing of one of the pillars of the East Guilford Church, where I had served as pastor. It was a particularly sad loss because this giant was in the community even before the church was founded back in 1831. In fact, he or she had been in that area for nearly 250 years—maybe even longer—presiding over a busy river valley, ministering to many in need of nourishment and shelter and rest. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time—being rooted to the right ground and yielding its fruit in its season. Since then, the church hasn’t been the same—the four corners known as East Guilford hasn’t been the same. As my mother used to say, it was the end of an era. The old oak tree is no more. In the past couple of weeks we’ve had similar losses to our own community—trees have lost limbs, even fallen because of ice. Many of these trees weren’t likely anyway to grow as tall and strong and live as long as that East Guilford oak—and in many cases, they’re the wrong kind of tree in the wrong place and can’t stand up to a coating of ice. Trees may be some of the hardiest plants around, but they need the right conditions to thrive—the right ground for their roots to dig deep, the right food and enough water to keep them growing strong and healthy.
This crowd around Jesus isn’t just a few people—the words Luke uses to describe it could number into the thousands. Jesus’ reputation has spread far and wide, not just among the Jewish people, but also into the gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon. People are drawn to him, want to see him, touch him, receive what he has to give. This huge crowd is full of all sorts of people, from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of needs and yearnings. We don’t know them by name, but we do know one very important thing about them all—what they come for they receive. Those who need healing are healed; those who have unclean spirits are cleansed; those who want to hear Jesus speak, hear him. In fact, the way it sounds, no matter what their motivation for being there, Jesus gives them what they want and more. No one is disappointed. No one leaves hungry.
And then Jesus looks up to speak—straight at his disciples. It’s kind of curious that in this great crowd of people, where it would be hard to pick out individual faces, Jesus looks straight at the people who have accepted his call to follow him. It doesn’t seem to matter if the rest of the crowd pays much attention, though I imagine they do. What he wants is for us to hear him. We are the disciples to whom he is speaking. We are the ones he has called to follow him and we, too, have come seeking something. Like those in the crowd, we come from a variety of backgrounds. We have a variety of needs and yearnings. My hunch is that we keep them mostly to ourselves. And my hunch is, like those in the crowd, we come hoping to be healed, to be cleansed, to hear him speak the word that will answer our deepest longings. And if we hear nothing from this text, we need to hear that we, like those in the crowd, will not be disappointed. He will not leave us hungry.
There’s more, though. We are his followers, his disciples and there’s more than just our needs involved here. When Jesus speaks, he’s offering us the chance to see beyond ourselves and become more aware—not only of who we are and what we need but what others need, too. And his question to us is, how aware are we of our human condition—in general and personally? How aware are we of others and their lot in life? How aware are we of our needs and yearnings—especially our own need and yearning for God—and even more, of the needs and yearnings of those around us? How aware are we of what God wants not only for us but for the rest of creation? How aware are we of the love God has for us? How aware are we of the sin that keeps us focused on ourselves, blocks our awareness and blocks us from benefiting and helping others to benefit from God’s presence?
Jesus is the one who says, “I understand your deepest fears, needs, hurts, pains. I know what needs to be healed and my power is available to you. But only those who acknowledge their need know enough to turn to me. The rich, the full, the content, the well-liked are satisfied with what they have. Is this enough for you? Are you really satisfied with what you have?” He encourages us to question ourselves: am I blessed or am I cursed? Is he warning me? Am I the one deserving of comfort? Have I already received my consolation? Can we hear these words without wondering what category we personally are in? Self-questioning leads to awareness and awareness helps us see the world a little more as God sees it.
Jesus is speaking in spiritual terms here and he really is talking about the very practical needs of people. He’s asking us to recognize our yearnings and to look beyond them to see people who are literally hungry, literally grief-stricken, literally rejected. He’s not romanticizing human needs, but drawing our attention to the power he has to address our needs. He’s drawing our attention to our role as his disciples in allowing his power to work through us to address such need. Jesus isn’t judging his listeners as much as he is telling us who we are. He doesn’t ask for repentance. He just describes what life is like then and now and what the realm of God is and will be—and offers us a choice. Happy (another word for blessed) are those, Psalm 1 says, who do not listen to the wicked—who do not laugh off as silly the ways of God. Happy are those who delight in doing what God wants—justice and mercy and love. Happy and blessed are those who are grounded not in the ways of the world, but in God. Like trees we can’t plant ourselves—we can’t make ourselves be what God wants us to be. What we can do is keep turning toward God, keep sending our roots deeper. A Sufi proverb says it this way: “Change that is real is not willed. Face reality and unwilled change will happen.” It is God who transforms us as we become ever more aware that nothing and no one can make us happy except for God.
So, are we like that oak that stood for so long in the hamlet of East Guilford—prospering over many years, through seasons of plenty and drought, strongly rooted in the ground? Or like those other trees, are we not likely to stand long with ice covered branches because our roots haven’t reached deep enough into the ground of God? The blessed are those who know they don’t have it made on their own, but only in their grounding in God through Jesus Christ. The blessed are those who are aware of their dependence on God as the source and strength of their lives. The blessed are those who know that God’s new community has begun in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the blessed are those who believe all of this ought to make a difference in how they and others live their lives. The invitation is clear: come to Jesus. Be blessed.